A small unassuming treasure
Brought to the Egypt Centre in 1971, W1013 forms part of the Wellcome Collection. The case is the size of very small child and is made of cartonnage (layers of linen stiffened with plaster or glue). The case would have been made by forming the wet cartonnage around a core of clay and straw. A hole would then be cut in the back and under the feet to remove the core in order to place a wrapped mummy within. Once the cartonnage had hardened, the cast could be covered with another thin layer of plaster and painted. On some cartonnage cases of this date it is possible to see where the case was laced up. EC1064b, for example shows lacing holes.
Mock hieroglyphs such as those found on W1013 are in fact relatively common. Several twenty-first Dynasty ‘intrusive coffins‘ (c. 900BC) found in the Nineteenth Dynasty tomb of Iurudef at Saqqara are inscribed in such a way for instance (Martin 1992: 144-145).
Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1893: 124-5) discusses sham inscriptions of the 22 to 25th Dynasty on coffins at Lahun and suggests they were due to the makers being illiterate. However, it was still important to have hieroglyphic signs as a magical aid to the afterlife.
Who was in the coffin?
If the coffin wasn’t a fake, then what was contained inside? In 1998 Singleton hospital agreed to x-ray the cartonnage case but the results were inconclusive. However, this year, Paola Griffiths of the Clinical Imaging College of Medicine at Swansea University offered to CT scan the artefact and the results revealed interior detail that had never before been seen.
The entire case was filled with long strips of folded material, presumably linen bandages, and within that a darker area about 10cm long appeared to be a foetus (in foetal position still within a placental sac) and what looked like a femur.
“The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12-16 week old foetus” explained curator Carolyn Graves-Brown.
Another dark patch in the scan suggests an amulet and there are several areas with circles resembling strings of beads or tassels.
An ancient tragedy
Graves-Brown explains that: “As the foetus is only 12-16 weeks and is not in a perfect state of preservation I would not guess the sex”. The outer casing does not clearly define the occupants sex as it is painted with a heavy, yellow and blue striped wig and a wide collar; something which is commonly found on male coffins, though can also be found on female coffins (Taylor 1984: 51). However the reddish-brown of the face is often associated with males.
The body is decorated with a criss-cross pattern of rhombus shapes that may imitate the bead net placed over other mummies. The pattern can be seen on several mummy related artefacts in the Egypt Centre, for example: EC232 (a Sokar hawk); W2001 (a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure); Osiris himself can be seen wearing a rhomboid patterned garment on W1042 (a pink Roman period coffin) and some Soter-type shroud fragments of the Roman Period.
It is sometimes claimed that because there were so many miscarriages and infant death in the ancient world, that somehow people became ‘hardened’ to such tragedies. However, it is clear from the care taken by the Egyptians that in many instances such losses were not treated casually. For example, two coffins holding foetuses were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. In New Kingdom (c.1550-1070BC) Deir el-Medina, a part of the eastern cemetery seems to have been set aside for child burials but also foetuses and even placentas in bloody cloths (Bruyère 1937; Anthes 1943). The placenta was believed to represent the twin of the self (Pinch 1994:130) and so was treated with care too.
Graves-Brown concludes, “We can imagine that the probable foetus within W1013 represents someone’s terrible loss; an occasion of great grief and public mourning.”
Past Horizons. 2014. “The mystery of mummy W1013”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 14, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/05/2014/the-mystery-of-mummy-w1013