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Mysterious Medieval Italian Skeleton Offers Unique Insight Into Ancient Medicine

A medieval Italian woman not only gave birth to a baby inside her grave, she may have had a hole drilled into her skull to treat a common pregnancy complication.

Photo Credit: A. Pasini et al., 2018/World Neurosurgery

It was an archaeological mystery — a deceased adult woman from the Middle Ages, found buried in Imola, Italy, in a stone-lined grave with a scattering of small bones between her legs. In addition to the small bones, the woman also had a hole in her skull. Had she been shot? Attacked with a sharp object? The victim of a particularly nasty fall?

As it turns out, none of the above. According to scientists who recently published their findings in the science journal World Neurosurgery, the small bones were from what’s called a “coffin birth,” or more grimly, “postmortem fetal extrusion” — the woman had given birth to a deceased fetus in her grave. During this uncommon decomposition-phase event, gases build up in the body cavity of a dead pregnant woman, eventually forcing her fetus to become expelled. This particular woman was thought to have been 38 weeks pregnant, with the fetus already deceased when she was buried.

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