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Unraveling the mystery of the Hawk Mummy

Researcher Andrew Wade from the Department of Anthropology helps shed light on 'hawk' mummy that was really human.

Jun 03, 2018

The small Egyptian mummy has laid tightly wrapped in a British museum since 1925, adorned with the image of a hawk in gold leaf: "EA 493 – Mummified Hawk, Ptolemaic Period."

Except the artifact wasn't a bird: it was actually a rare stillborn male fetus.

And new scans from a Canadian-led team reveal that the fetus — just 24 centimetres long and stillborn at 23 to 28 weeks of gestation — had a rare condition called anencephaly, a disorder where the brain and skull fail to develop in the embryo, and spina bifida, where the bones of the spine don't form properly around the spinal cord.

The scans reveal details about the health of the mother: anencephaly and spina bifida are linked to a lack of folic acid, found in dark, leafy greens and other food.

They also teach us about the family: to mummify the remains would have been a costly endeavour, suggesting the likely grief-stricken family wanted to honour their child, stillborn an estimated 2,100 years ago.

"That's part of the process … that it isn't entirely a loss, that the child is commended to the gods," said Andrew Wade, an anthropologist at Hamilton's McMaster University who also contributed to the research.

"You can see the way it was wrapped up, and the association with the falcon form, that perhaps it was then also a messenger to the gods as well.… There's more than just wrapping it up in a bundle and saying a few words over it."

Read the full article on the CBC website.