The mysterious lady in the wrong sarcophagus
The mother-to-be probably came from the Egyptian city of Thebes in today’s Luxor and lived around the first century BC. She was around twenty to thirty years old at the time of her death. The mummy came to Poland in the 19th century, when it became part of the local antiquities collection. In 1917, it was moved to the National Museum in Warsaw, where it is still displayed next to its sarcophagus.
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Egyptian embalmers mummified the corpse using natron, a naturally occurring salt mixture that the ancient Egyptians used to dry and disinfect bodies. The fetus in the woman’s womb mummified only in the resulting acidic environment.
The already very interesting mummy has now revealed another secret. The same research team that discovered the fetus inside the mummified body last year apparently figured out the cause of her death. According to him, the mysterious lady had cancer of the nasopharynx, which, according to scientists, is evidenced by the deformations found in the woman’s skull.
This type of cancer affects the mouth, nasal cavity and trachea. In a recent 3D reconstruction of the skull of a dead woman, scientists discovered a seven millimeter hole behind the left eye socket. “This unusual gap suggests that a tumor or lesion grew in this place and displaced the surrounding bone,” explained Marzena Ozarek-Szilke, an archaeologist and anthropologist from the Medical University of Warsaw.
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According to the scientist, the hole in the eye socket could also have been caused by other diseases, such as anemia, which is quite common in pregnant women. “However, other small bone deformations in the nasal cavity and jaw make cancer the most likely cause of this deformation,” the anthropologist specified.
Did cancer kill her?
Under normal circumstances, with a skull this old, it would be impossible to pinpoint the cause of these deformities, but the Mysterious Lady is so well preserved that traces of her soft tissues still cling to the bones. These remains allow researchers to perform histopathological tests similar to those used to test for cancer even today.
The diagnosis has yet to be confirmed by chemical tests. The team expects to have definitive confirmation of the disease by the end of the year.
If the dead woman was indeed suffering from cancer before her death, this disease may have been what killed her. “Cancer could have been the direct cause of her death. However, there is still a possibility that pregnancy played a role in the death, or a combination of several factors,” said the Polish expert.
Under normal circumstances, it is almost impossible to determine how our mummified ancestors died. The Warsaw scientists are therefore excited about the potential discovery. “When examining human remains, we are always interested in what was the cause of death of the deceased. Most of the time we don’t manage to find the answer to this question,” explained Ozarek-Szilkeová.
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However, scientists still have many things to learn about the Mysterious Lady. For example, the exact reason why she was buried in the wrong sarcophagus, or who she was in her lifetime, is still an unsolved mystery. “We have uncovered another piece of the puzzle of her life. But we are still missing a few pieces,” concluded the scientist.