The provision of advanced medical care to members of society is probably one of the most important and fascinating developments in human history. While successful amputations and the use of prosthetics are widely thought of as fairly recent advances, archaeologists are starting to make discoveries that push this story back thousands of years. First came the discovery of the oldest known prosthetic limb from ancient Egypt, and now archaeologists have just found two more examples, from two very different parts of the ancient world, both of which demonstrate an incredible level of medical skill and ingenuity thousands of years ago.
Archaeologists excavating an early Medieval cemetery in Austria uncovered the remains of a 6th century middle-aged man who’d had his left foot and ankle amputated. Evidence of a prosthetic device was found where his missing appendage would have been, this included stains left by a long since deteriorated wooden object, an iron ring used to stabilise the device, and dark staining on the lower leg bones that suggests leather straps were used to attach the prosthesis.
Skeletal analysis indicates that part of the leg bone and foot had been surgically amputated. Incredibly, the bones appeared to have healed, and not only that, the patient had obviously survived long enough to need the prosthesis.
Losing the foot through the bone, and not the ankle joint, would have caused extensive bleeding and would have been highly prone to a subsequent infection. The fact that this patient had survived is remarkable; the reason that we don’t see too many prosthetic devices in the archaeological record is perhaps down to the fact that most people just didn’t survive trauma like this.
The reasons for the amputation are unclear, though differences in bone density between the two legs indicate that the left leg had been out of action for quite some time. Archaeologists think that this may suggest a long term injury, perhaps horse-riding related, as the hips and knees of the individual bear traits of a habitual horseman.
Meanwhile in Turpan, China, archaeologists discovered the remains of a 2,200 year old male buried with an elaborately designed prosthetic leg. Made from poplar, the leg had holes along each side to allow for leather straps to attach the prosthesis to the man’s own leg. The base was carved into a cylindrical shape, wrapped with a scrapped ox horn and then tipped with a horse-hoof, presumably to increase the grip and prevent extensive wear from use.
The owner of this wooden leg is estimated to be between 50-65 years old, and wear to the top of the prosthesis indicates that the leg was worn for many years before his death. Perhaps what’s even more surprising is that his modest burial goods (ceramic cups, wooden plates and bows) indicate that he was not a man of status, and demonstrate that this type of medical practice wasn’t only reserved for the elite.
Studying the skeleton archaeologists discovered that the man had a deformity of his left knee. The patella, femur and tibia had all fused together at some point in the man’s life and were fixed at an 80-degree angle. Clearly this would have made it very hard to walk, so this prosthesis was designed and attached to allow him to support his weight on his left leg.
The deformity may have developed through trauma or rheumatism in old age, but evidence suggests that he had been infected with tuberculosis at some point in his life. It’s possible that inflammation from the infection in his joint resulted in the bony growth present on his skeleton which fused the bones together.
Both prostheses are brilliant examples of the skill and innovation that past societies actually possessed when it came to medical treatment. This is made all the more incredible when you consider their lack of antiseptic and anaesthetics which we take for granted in medicine today!
Though it may not have been a common occurrence, it’s a credit to the resilience of the human body that people were still surviving crippling diseases and trauma, and it’s their survival which in turn necessitated developing new ways to adapt.
The examples here serve to highlight the fact that prosthetics aren’t a new technology – they’ve been helping people go about their daily lives, in different parts of the world, for thousands of years – and the ingenuity demonstrated by them shows that in some ways, at least, historical medicine was much more advanced than you might have thought.
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