Gynecology is the “science of women” and the term given to the modern medical discipline that focuses on the female reproductive system which includes the vagina, uterus, and ovaries. The 19th-century physician James Marion Sims developed new tools and pioneered surgical techniques for women’s reproductive health. But, while Sims is often credited as being the “ father of modern gynecology ,” a recent discovery made in an Egyptian tomb of a gynecological treatment renders him as a latecomer in what is a deeply ancient medical field .
3D model of the tombs at Qubbet-el Hawa created by a process of scanning and digitalization which the team has been conducting since 2014. ( Proyecto Qubbet-el Hawa )
Necropolis of the Southern Egyptian Elites
The necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa is located on a hillside in West-Aswan, south of the Nubian village of Gharb Aswan. Comprising four levels of magnificent rock-cut tombs, Qubbet el-Hawa was reserved for the burial of the highest-ranking officials of Elephantine which was the main urban center of the First Upper Egyptian dynasty from the mid-Sixth Dynasty onwards.
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Thanks to the 19 th-century discovery in Egypt of dignitary’s biographies carved onto the facades of the tomb, which detail the lives of the highest officials who controlled the southernmost province of Egypt, much is known about this site. Now, researchers at this ancient elite necropolis have discovered evidence of a gynecological treatment performed on a woman who died around 1800 BC.
The team found evidence of a gynecological treatment. The human remains were uncovered with a ceramic bowl between her legs, which has burnt remains, deemed evidence of ancient gynecological fumigation. (Patricia Mora / Proyecto Qubbet-el Hawa )
Evidence of Ancient Gynecological Treatment
The ancient woman, known as Sattjeni, belonged to the Egyptian elite in the city of Elephantine. Researchers from the Qubbet El-Hawa Project in Aswan recently explained that the human remains were unearthed along with “a ceramic bowl containing burned remains between her legs, that had originally been bandaged.”
Anthropologists from the University of Granada collaborated with the researchers from the Universidad de Jaén ( UJA) and confirmed that the woman had suffered “a traumatic injury in her pelvis, perhaps caused by a fall, which had to cause severe pain.” Evidence suggests that the Egyptian surgeons adhered to guidance from medical papyri in reference to curing gynecological problems, and to alleviate her systemic pain she appears to have been treated “with fumigations.”
Detail of the ancient tomb under investigation. (Patricia Mora / Proyecto Qubbet-el Hawa )
Exploring Ancient Egyptian Gynecological Traditions
Studying the 12th Dynasty tombs at this Egyptian province that borders Nubia, the team of researchers from the University of Jaén have been excavating at this ancient Egyptian necropolis since 2008. Alejandro Jiménez, a professor of Egyptology at the UJA and director of the Qubbet el-Hawa Project, told Elcomercio that this new discovery is not only rare tangible evidence of an ancient palliative gynecological treatment, unique in Egyptian archaeology. This breakthrough is the first evidence that fumigations described in contemporary medical papyri were actually performed.
A 1994 paper, entitled Gynecology and obstetrics in ancient Egypt , analyzed scriptural and archeologic sources relating to gynecology and obstetrics in ancient Egypt. The researchers said “knowledge of anatomy was rudimentary but precocious diagnosis of pregnancy was practiced.” It is known that spermicidal mixtures were made by priests to aid contraception and that a specifically designed child birthing chair (obstetrical chair) had been used since the 6th Dynasty, around 2324 to 2160 BC. Furthermore, its known that the Egyptians were the first ancient civilization to describe prolapsus of the genital organs.
View of Qubbet el-Hawa and the Nile in the foreground, the location of the ancient nectopolis under investigation by the University of Jaen team. (Silar / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Gynecological Health Plans for the Rich
Qubbet el-Hawa not only contains information about the medical facilities and treatments on offer to the super-rich elites of ancient Egypt , but it also speaks of the interactions between Egypt and its neighboring Nubia. According to the carved records discovered at this site, an official of Elephantine called Heqaib, who lived in the second half of the reign of Pepy II (c 2278–2184 BC), was “deified after his death.” Becoming a God, posthumously, was an exceptionally important social episode and historians believe this occurred as a consequence of a crisis in the royal court with Nubia at the end of the Old Kingdom and beginning of the First Intermediate Period.
The God Heqaib had a self-appointed son, Sarenput I , who controlled southern Egypt at the beginning of the 12th Dynasty. Declaring himself the son of the God Heqaib, Sarenput I inaugurated the dynasty and ruled from his political center at Elephantine. For more than a century and half, his family constructed their funerary complexes and tombs at Qubbet el-Hawa . Most of the tombs were excavated between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, but their funerary shafts, as well as many non-decorated tombs, weren’t excavated until 2008 by the University of Jaén project.
Find out more about ancient Egyptian Medicine at the Ancient Origins First Healers Conference this weekend.
Top image: Image shows excavation work by the University of Jaen Qubbet-el Hawa Project, during which they have uncovered evidence of an ancient gynecological treatment. Source: Patricia Mora / Proyecto Qubbet-el Hawa
By Ashley Cowie