You never know what kind of secret treasures you might have lying around, and turns out, sometimes museums don't either. Conservators at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum recently discovered that a tiny coffin in their collection contained the embalmed body of a fetus. Scans of the body suggest that the fetus was between 16 and 18 weeks gestation when it was embalmed, making it the youngest Egyptian mummy found to date. 

The 17-inch coffin has been in the museum’s collection since 1907, when it was removed from a tomb in Giza. The doll-sized cedar box had been carefully carved and decorated and is an exact miniature of an adult coffin from around 664 to 525 BCE. Inside the coffin was a bundle wrapped in bandages, then covered with black resin. The box was just the right size to house the organs removed from adult bodies, and for more than a century experts believed that was what was in there. 

Fortunately, these days we don’t have to make assumptions about artifacts; we can just use technology to non-invasively take a look inside. When museum staff x-rayed the coffin's contents, the images were intriguing but not conclusive, so the conservators brought the little black bundle to a computed tomography (CT) scanner at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Those scans confirmed what the x-ray had suggested: The coffin contains the carefully preserved remains of a very small human body. Three radiologists examined the CT scans and determined that the body had been a fetus, likely no more than 18 weeks old. They couldn’t tell if the fetus had been male or female, but agreed that its end was likely the result of a miscarriage. The body's small arms were crossed over its chest just as an adult’s would have been—one of several details that suggest a certain level of importance.

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum, said in a press statement [PDF]: "Using non-invasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception." 

[h/t Discovery News]

All images are courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.