A team of archaeologists has uncovered what some are calling a “coffin birth” in remains found in a medieval tomb. In Imola, a town in northern Italy near Bologna, experts found what they believe to be evidence of a post-mortem birth. They also found evidence of trepanation -- one of the most ancient forms of surgery, that has been documented by archaeologists in cases dating into darkest prehistory.
The archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a young woman and a fetus from the 12th century A.D. The fetal remains were found laid between the the female skeleton’s pelvis and legs. In addition, they found a perforation in the frontal bone of the young woman’s skull, above her eye sockets. According to a summary of the study, the authors of the study of the find attempted to interpret the injury and reconstruct the circumstances of death.
According to the authors of the study titled “Neurosurgery on a Pregnant Woman with Post Mortem Fetal Extrusion: An Unusual Case from Medieval Italy,” they found that the lesion on the skull appears “commensurate with a surgical intervention.” They wrote that there were signs of healing along the edges of the skull lesion, which is round in shape. “It can be hypothesized that the survival of the woman undergoing the surgery was approximately 1 week and the fetus extruded after the burial.” This unique case has shed more light on the history of neurosurgery during the Early Middle Ages in Europe, claimed the authors.
“Because trepanation was once often used in the treatment of hypertension to reduce blood pressure in the skull,we theorized that this lesion could be associated with the treatment of a hypertensive pregnancy disorder, such as preeclampsia,” the researchers wrote. “This finding is one of the few documented cases of trepanation in the European early Middle Ages, and the only one featuring a pregnant woman in association with a postmortem fetal-extrusion phenomenon.”
At the time of her death, the mother was between 25 to 35 years old. When they measured the length of the femur of the fetus, the authors of the study determined that he was 38 weeks in gestation. The mother was but two weeks away from carrying the baby to full term. This is a rare case of "post-mortem fetal expulsion" or "coffin birth." While the phenomenon is rare in northern climes, it is known in archaeological and forensic medical circles. Upon the death of a pregnant woman, the gases caused by decomposition fill the abdominal cavity. After a period of two to five days, the pressure of the gases may eventually expel the baby from the uterus. Pushed by the gases, the baby goes out by the most natural way, although the pressure can sometimes be too weak. In the absence of muscle contractions, the child then remains partially in the body of the mother.
The scientists were able to reconstruct more precisely the events that led to the death of the young mother. Between the forehead and top of the skull, they found a small circular hole approximately 5 millimeters (0.20 inches) in diameter. They believe that this shows that the woman was subjected to trepanning, which consists of drilling a hole in the cranium by using a this discovery. A nearby mark on the skull gave further evidence of trepanning. This very delicate surgical operation has been in use since Neolithic times. Trepanning was known to be in use during the Lombard era in Italy. Currently, a related technique is used to to remove brain tumors, evacuate blood during subdural or epidural hematomas in the brain.