Rare Case Of Coffin Birth Found In Medieval Gravesite

Published April 5, 2018

The woman was found with a cluster of tiny bones between her legs.

Coffin Birth News

SmithsonianThe woman’s body was found with tiny infant bones between her legs.

In 2010, Archeologists excavating a grave site in the small medieval town of Imola, Italy, made a grisly discovery — a woman who seemed to have given birth post-mortem. In a recently published paper, the archaeologists broke down their findings and explained the rarity of what they had uncovered.

At first, nothing about the woman in the coffin seemed unusual. She was between 25 and 35 years old and had been buried face-up, suggesting deliberate burial. However, upon closer inspection, scientists noticed something peculiar. Cradled within the skeletal pelvis, there was a small cluster of tiny bones from a fetus that was about 38 weeks of age.

Even more peculiar? The position of the bones and the tiny legs nestled inside the mother’s pelvis suggested that the woman had given birth post-mortem.

The phenomenon that the archeologists discovered is a well known, yet incredibly rare one. Known as “post-mortem fetal extrusion,” or more colloquially “coffin birth”, the phenomenon occurs due to gasses that build up in the body after death.

Typically, the gasses leak out through different parts of the body. However, in deceased pregnant women, the force of the building gasses actually pushes the fetus out through the birth canal. The gory details have been recorded in archaeological records, though extremely infrequently.

In modern deaths, embalming and cremation have almost eliminated coffin births, though of course, the possibility is still there in the event a body is not embalmed.

In addition to the signs of a coffin birth, the woman also showed signs of head trauma.

A 4.6 mm hole was found in the woman’s skull that appeared to be drilled deliberately, as opposed to resulting from an attack. Scientists believe that the most likely cause of the hole is that the woman underwent a trepanation. In medieval times, doctors used trepanation (the drilling of small holes in the skull to relieve pressure) to treat anything from a high fever to seizures.

However, trepanation would have been an unusual move for a woman so heavily pregnant. Archaeologists are hoping that the discovery of the skull hole, as well as the coffin birth, will shed some light on the medieval treatment of pregnancy, and how doctors dealt with at-risk pregnancies.

Next, check out the most painful medical procedures from medieval times. Then, read more about the things that happen to your body after you die.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.