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Archaeologists Unearth 'Birthing Brick'

They believe royalty used it to ease labor

TUESDAY, Aug. 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Modern mothers-to-be have classes and labor coaches to help them with the hard work of giving birth.

In ancient times, laboring women had birth bricks that helped them gain their footing as they squatted to deliver their child. Now, for the first time, a team of University of Pennsylvania archaeologists has found one such brick. They unearthed it during an excavation of the palatial residence of a long-ago mayor just outside Abydos in southern Egypt. They estimate it was used in 1700 or 1750 B.C., making it 3,700 years old.

"We knew they existed," says Josef Wegner, associate curator of the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who led the excavation. "They're viewed as magical, protective objects."

Until recently, no one had ever found a birthing brick, Wegner says. Then, last summer, during the excavation, "it sort of popped up," he says.

Women were believed to stand on two or four of the unbaked mud bricks during childbirth, Wegner says. The bricks were thought not only to give physical support, but also psychological and emotional help. "I think it's likely they would have saved them and reused them," Wegner says.

Measuring 14 inches by 7 inches, the ancient brick found in the Egyptian excavation still has colorful painted scenes and figures, including a mother holding her newborn baby, as well as magical images of gods whose job it was to help mother and baby at the time of birth. Another scene shows a woman placing a hand on the back of the new mother. Yet another woman is in the kneeling stance, as if helping to deliver a child.

The upper surface of the brick has crumbled away, probably from its use in supporting a woman's feet, maybe during multiple deliveries, Wegner says.

As far as Wegner knows, this is the first and only birthing brick found. "It's really exciting to find something that's never been seen before," he says." It's the most personally touching object I have found."

The area of the palatial residence where the brick was uncovered, Wegner says, was thought to be the female residential area. They think the brick was used by a noblewoman named Renseneb. "It's fairly likely she was married to one of the mayors," Wegner says.

His report of the find is to be published in Egyptian Archaeology.

What To Do

For a poll on what Americans think of archaeology, see the Society for American Archaeology. For a history of childbirth education, go to the Association of Labor Assistants and Childbirth Educators.

SOURCES: Josef Wegner, Ph.D., associate curator, Egyptian section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and assistant professor, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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