A Re-Assessment of the Larger Fetus Found in Tutankhamen's Tomb

Article excerpt


Within the inner treasury of the tomb of Tutankhamen were two small coffins in the style used for high personages (Carter 1933). One of these contained the small mummy of a neonate preserved in accordance with eighteenth-dynasty burial customs, the other contained a slightly larger mummy, also of a neonatal infant but wrapped in linen and unpreserved (Chamberlain 2001). It is hypothesised that these mummified babies are the deceased progeny of Tutankhamen and his wife Ankhsenpaatin and were placed in the tomb with their father upon his death.

The fetuses were initially examined in 1933 by Professor D. Derry and noted to be female and from body length measurements, to be of five and seven months gestational age for the smaller and larger fetuses respectively. This led to the conclusion that they were from two separate births. However, the larger of the two fetuses was radiographically re-examined (Harrison et al.) in 1979 and re-estimated to be a still-birth aged eight or at the most nine months. Although there are currently no radiographs of the second smaller fetus from which to assess gestational age more accurately, Chamberlain (2001) proposed that it would seem unlikely that the two were actually from separate births and are in fact twins. The interpretations made by Derry (1933) when estimating comparative gestational age of the two fetuses were most probably inaccurate as demonstrated by the subsequent radiographical examination of the larger fetuses. Chamberlain (2001) notes that using fetal length to calculate gestational age relies upon estimates based on measurements of dead western infants and that the length of a shrunken, mummified fetus is by no means accurate. The method of using skeletal ossification markers utilised by Harrison et Al. (1979) is far more precise and the smaller of the two fetuses is most probably also older than predicted by Professor Derry.

Chamberlain's twin theory also arises from the observation that there is currently no other evidence in Ancient Egypt of neonates being buried with their parents, thus suggesting that the deaths of Tutankhamen and the fetuses occurred within a short time of one another. The idea that the fetuses are from two separate births presumes that their bodies were kept, awaiting the death of a parent. However, Tutankhamen died at a relatively young age and could potentially have lived for many more years. Chamberlain therefore questions where the babies would have been kept in this intervening period and why one of them was not mummified. He suggests that the mummies are in fact a twin pregnancy that resulted in still-birth a short time before Tutankhamen died or whilst his body was undergoing the lengthy mummification process; and as such, were placed with their father in his tomb. The difference in the size of the fetuses is attributed not to singleton births of different gestational age but to intrauterine growth discrepancy as a consequence of Twin-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS).

The hypothesis proposed by Chamberlain (2001) that the two fetuses are a twin birth exhibiting growth discordance is discussed herein together with a re-examination of the radiograph of the larger fetus with the aim of more accurately predicting its gestational age and investigating whether there are any skeletal indicators that it is a large-for-date fetus to support Harrison's TTTS theory.

Estimating fetal maturity

The radiograph of the larger fetus was last examined in 1979 and it is therefore of interest in light of new research into fetal growth and maturity to re-examine the developmental stage of the imaged fetus. Methods for the assessment of fetal maturity have been developed for clinical and forensic investigation and can be applied to anthropological and archaeological cases such as this. Fetal weight estimation is also calculated with various methods due to its clinical obstetric importance (Ryan et al. …