A Tumor With Teeth Was Found In The Pelvis Of An Ancient Egyptian Woman

By Khadija Pervez in News Published On 16th November 2023
A. Deblauwe

If an excavator hadn't been paying close attention while working at an old tomb in Egypt, archaeologists might never have found it: a single tooth resting in a worn-out pelvis.

Initially, the site supervisor and archaeologist Melinda King Wetzel believed she had come across the remains of a fetus from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs.


Upon sharing her discovery with the bioarchaeological director, Gretchen Dabbs, it was revealed that the find was even more uncommon.

Wetzel, along with another site supervisor, Anna Stevens, claims to have unearthed the oldest evidence of a mature ovarian teratoma, or germ cell tumor.

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M. Wetzel

Presently, the mass appears as a calcified cluster of disorganized, fully formed tissues, including bone and teeth, measuring approximately 3 by 2 centimeters (0.8 by 1.2 inches) in size.

Its origins date back to the mid-14th century BCE.


Researchers assert that this finding significantly enhances our historical understanding of this condition, providing both temporal and geographical depth.

Wetzel, Dabbs, and Stevens, affiliated with different companies and universities, have collaborated for years on the Amarna Project. 

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A. Deblauwe

This ongoing archaeological dig aims to uncover the burial grounds of ordinary people near the former capital city of Pharaoh Akhenaten, established in 1345 BCE, along the eastern banks of the Nile River.

The young female skeleton with the ovarian tumor was discovered in a multi-chambered tomb at Amarna's North Desert Cemetery.

Estimated to be between 18 and 21 years old at the time of death, she was buried with her hands positioned over her pelvis, following a burial tradition common in other non-elite Amarna cemeteries. 


Teratomas represent uncommon varieties of germ cell tumors, typically benign in nature.

However, they may present symptoms such as abdominal pain or infertility.

Teratomas are exceptionally rare finds in archaeological contexts.

Remarkably, this case marks only the fifth instance of its kind discovered by archaeologists, and notably, it is the sole occurrence from Egypt.


Distinguishing itself by several centuries, this tumor predates other ancient teratomas previously identified by archaeologists in Spain, France, Peru, and Portugal.

Initially, when Wetzel first observed the lone tooth, it seemed solitary. However, upon closer examination, she and her colleagues identified an empty slot on the calcified mass.

Further exploration around the female skeleton unveiled a second tooth near the top of the leg bone, still within the pelvic cavity.

Its seamless fit into the vacant slot led archaeologists to deduce that this second tooth was originally part of the tumor but had separated during the decomposition process.


The authors note that both teeth, while somewhat distorted, are fully covered in enamel crowns.

Additionally, these teeth exhibit partially formed root structures at their cemento-enamel base.

This is much too developed for an early stage fetus and it strongly suggests the mass is not an unborn offspring but a tumor.

"Without the careful excavation and recording of the teratoma in situ," writes the team of archaeologists, "it is more than likely the isolated tooth would have been, at least initially, identified as an intrusive element from a different individual or possibly as evidence of an additional burial within the tomb if the tooth was not able to be associated with the other individuals buried in the same tomb."


The researchers highlight that the individual in question wore a gold ring on her left hand, positioned in proximity to the tumor.

The ring featured an illustration of Bes, an ancient Egyptian deity linked with fertility and protection.

Although speculative, the authors propose the intriguing possibility that the intentional placement of the Bes ring could have been a purposeful attempt to address the pain experienced in this part of the body or to address perceived issues of infertility.