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This tiny ancient Egyptian coffin hid a big secret for over a century

Researchers make a rare discovery when they look deep inside a extraordinary coffin collected decades ago from Egypt.

This small coffin shows the care taken with preserving the dead in ancient Egypt.

Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum in the UK has an unusual item in its collection. It's a wood coffin, a mere 17 inches (44 centimeters) long. It dates to around 664-525 BC. The small size is notable, but the contents are even more fascinating.

Researchers discovered a small human fetus inside. "This discovery is the only academically verified specimen to exist at only sixteen to eighteen weeks of gestation," the museum said in a statement Wednesday.

The coffin has resided with the Fitzwilliam Museum since it was first unearthed in Giza in 1907. Egyptologists originally believed the coffin contained mummified organs that were removed during burial rituals. But something was different about the container. The cedar wood is carved in an ornate fashion, hinting that a high level of care was taken while crafting it.

A cross-sectional CT (computerized tomography) scan of the coffin revealed a tiny skeleton inside a wrapped bundle.

"It was impossible to give a gender to the specimen and it is thought that the foetus was probably the result of a miscarriage, as there were no obvious abnormalities to explain why it could not have been carried to full-term," the museum said.

CT scanning uses X-ray images combined with computer processing to look inside objects, including people, animals and artifacts like the coffin. It's noninvasive and doesn't damage the contents of sensitive archaeological items. Researchers could see details of the fetus, including that it has its arms crossed over its chest. The fingers and toes were all visible.

The coffin is on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of an exhibit called "Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt." It runs through May 22.