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Archaeologists discover mummified fetus under Italian church

Archaeologists made a surprising discovery beneath an Italian church that was hit by an earthquake. When the church's floor partially collapsed, it revealed underground rooms containing mummified bodies, including a 19th-century mummified fetus.

The fetus, along with the other mummified bodies, was found beneath the St. John the Evangelist church in the Casentino village, after a magnitude-6.3 earthquake hit central Italy's L'Aquila in 2009. The church floor collapsed during the earthquake, revealing the bodies. The researchers estimate that the fetus is from 1840 and was in development for 29 weeks.

The fetus revealed surprising details about ancient medical practices, according to Live Science. Apparently, the fetus "underwent an ancient surgical procedure" while still in the mother's womb. The procedure in question was used when the mother's life was in danger, or when the fetus was already dead. The researchers published their findings in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

After examining the fetus with a radiograph, the researchers discovered that its skeleton wasn't connected, suggesting that an operation had occurred. Its skull had been "dissected in several places and disconnected from the spine," and its arms were separated from the body.

Ruggero D'Anastasio of Italy's University of Chieti, author of the study, told Live Science that before its removal from the womb, the fetus likely underwent an embryotomy, which the study notes was considered by some to be "the most extreme method of abortion during the medieval period." D'Anastasio said the fetus "is the only anthropological proof of this surgical practice up to now in this geographical region," adding that embryotomy was common in ancient cultures, including first- and second-century Rome.

The findings get creepier, though — Live Science adds that "the remains of this fetus had been reassembled to match its anatomic shape," with the fetus being put back together and dressed.