A new study has highlighted the oldest documented instance of a teratoma discovered within the 3,000-year-old burial chamber of a young woman found in an ancient Egyptian cemetery. Teratomas are a type of tumor that typically originates in the testicles or ovaries. In this case, the teratoma was nestled within the pelvis of the deceased woman, who was discovered with a Bes ring on her left hand.
This marks the fifth documented occurrence of a teratoma, with three cases reported in Europe and one in Peru. This teratoma has been found within the New Kingdom period cemetery at Amarna, Egypt, a city founded around 1345 BC. It marks the first ancient case of this condition found in Africa, according to the study published in The International Journal of Paleopathology.
The teratoma tumor was discovered within Tomb 3 of the North Desert Cemetery at Amarna, Egypt. (M. Wetzel / Amarna Project)
Extensive Investigations at Amarna Reveal Rare Teratoma
Amarna, a city situated on the eastern bank of the Nile River, roughly midway between the cities of Cairo and Luxor (ancient Thebes), served as the epicenter of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s worship of the sun god Aten and housed his royal court. While the city featured temples, palaces and other structures that supported a population of approximately 20,000 to 50,000 people, it was abandoned within a decade following Akhenaten’s death in 1336 BC, as detailed in the study.
Archaeologists have extensively investigated four cemeteries linked to the city of Amarna. Among these, one particular tomb within the North Desert Cemetery, comprising a shaft and a burial chamber, yielded the remains of a young woman, estimated to be between 18 and 21 years old, who had been laid to rest in a plant fiber mat. Alongside her, a collection of grave goods was interred, including a ring adorned with the image of Bes, a deity commonly associated with aspects of childbirth, fertility and protection.
Teratomas can manifest as either benign or malignant, and they typically comprise a variety of tissues, including muscle, hair, teeth or bone. They can cause discomfort and swelling and, if they rupture, may lead to infection. In contemporary times, the typical approach to treatment involves the removal of the mass.
The teratoma tumor depicted in situ within the left sciatic notch which was discovered inside the Amarna burial. (M. Wetzel / Amarna Project)
As excavations progressed, archaeologists observed an unusual anomaly within the woman’s pelvic region: a bony mass, roughly the size of a large grape, exhibiting two depressions containing deformed teeth! The findings were published by Gretchen Dabbs, a bioarchaeologist from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and her colleagues.
Their report ruled out other potential diagnoses and instead suggested that the presence of teeth within the pelvic area pointed to this being an ovarian teratoma. “By 18-21 years, this individual probably would have been someone’s wife,” Dabbs told Live Science in an email, but there is also “little doubt she was working in some fashion.”
Representational image of a Bes Ring. In the case of the teratoma-suffering woman who was buried at Amarna, researchers have argued that the Bes ring was a magico-medical object used to alleviate her symptoms. (Public domain)
Teratoma Symptom Relief: Investigating the Bes Ring’s Magico-Medical Properties
Previous investigations conducted at Amarna have proposed that women within the same age group as the individual in question were involved in a diverse array of occupations. These activities potentially encompassed participation in state-level construction projects, brewing beer, as well as managing and caring for household gardens and livestock.
The presence of the Bes ring is intriguing, as it may provide a clue that the teratoma had been causing symptoms. This is because the “magico-medical” object was intentionally positioned on the woman’s left hand, which was carefully folded across her lap just above the location of the teratoma.
The placement of the ring suggests that the woman may have been making an effort to invoke the protective qualities of Bes, perhaps in an attempt to alleviate any pain or other discomfort associated with the teratoma. It is likely that she sought the deity’s assistance in her aspirations for conception and the successful birth of a child, as suggested in the research study.
Gretchen Dabbs is currently in the process of conducting a comprehensive analysis of the numerous skeletons unearthed in the North Desert Cemetery at Amarna during the previous year. Her ongoing work aims to explore potential biological relationships among the individuals interred there.
There are plans to delve deeper into other Egyptian burials featuring objects with potential so-called magico-medical significance, promising further insights into the ancient practices and beliefs surrounding health and well-being in ancient Egypt.
Top image: The teratoma tumor, including teeth, which was discovered within the Amarna crypt. Source: A. Deblauwe / Amarna Project
By Sahir Pandey
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