Although pirates and peg legs are inextricably linked, evidence for amputations and artificial body parts date to antiquity. Limbs have been amputated for thousands of years because of injuries received during battle or accidents, as a treatment for a disease or an infection, and even as a punishment. There is osteological evidence for amputations in graves found in France, Israel, and Egypt that date back thousands of years. For as long has humans have had to remove body parts there has been a need for artificial limbs. Prosthetic body parts have been discovered in the tombs of ancient Persia, Rome, and Egypt.
The skeletal evidence for amputation is extremely rare due to misidentification of the remains. For example, if a patient doesn’t survive the amputation then the medical intervention might be mistaken for post-mortem damage or traumatic injury, rather than a surgical procedure. So survival and the healing process are critical to the identification of this type of surgery.
At the cellular level the healing process starts almost immediately, but a few days after amputation there is a no observable signs of healing. After more than a week the ends of the bone and diaphysis (mid-shaft) will undergo vascular erosion. After two weeks an endosteal callus will form on the end of the shaft that will eventually narrow and obliterate the medullary cavity. This basically means that a rough bony callus will start to cover the marrow cavity of the bone. Eventually the rough new bone growth will eventually smooth over and give the shortened end of the diaphysis a rounded appearance (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin 1998).
Below are a few examples of amputated limbs in the archaeological record:
- A Neolithic burial, dating to between 4900-4700 BC, was discovered in France in 2005. It contained the remains of a man whose right arm was amputated at the end of the humerus (Buquet-Marcon, Charlier, & Samzun 2009).
- Archaeologists is Israel found the 3600-year-old remains of a 45 year-old man who was missing his right hand and wrist, and the distal ends of his radius and ulna had fused (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin 1998).
- In the Hammurabi Codex of about 1800 BC there is a record of a “punitive hand amputation (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin 1998).”
For as long as medical intervention has been needed to remove limbs there has been a demand for prosthetic body parts. Over the centuries artificial limbs have evolved into works of bionic and artistic innovation. So when archaeologists unearth the man-made body parts used in ancient times the discovery serves as a reminder of how far medicine and technology have come.
In 1910, a bronze leg was unearthed from a Roman grave in Capua, Italy. Known aptly as the Capua Leg it dates to about 300BC, and was kept at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. However, the Capua Leg was destroyed in an air raid during World War II. Thankfully the museum made a copy of the leg before it was destroyed. The copy of the Capua Leg can be seen at the Science Museum, London.
In 2000, archaeologists discovered a fake toe made out of wood and leather on a female mummy. Some archaeologists believe that the 50- to 60-year-old woman who needed the toe may have had it removed because of problems caused by diabetes. The prosthesis dates from 1069 to 664 B.C., based on artifacts found in the mummy’s tomb near Thebes. Archaeologists believe that this toe was used in life and was functional because it was jointed in three places and showed signs of wear. This is important because Egyptians had a habit of putting fake feet, legs, noses, ears, and penises on corpses during the mummification process for use in the afterlife (Choi 2007).
Golden Eye isn’t just a weapon in a Bond film it was also an ancient artificial eye worn by a woman 5000 years ago. Iranian and Italian archaeologists discovered a golden artificial eye in an ancient necropolis near the Iranian-Afghan border in 2007. The eye was found in a grave of a woman, who was also buried with an ornate bronze hand mirror. An examination revealed that the woman was about 6 feet tall and was between 25 and 30 years old (Owen 2007).
The artificial eye was a half-sphere, just over an inch in diameter, and was made out of a lightweight material believed to be made from bitumen paste. The surface still had traces of a thin layer of gold, and was engraved with a circle for the iris with gold lines radiating out of it. On either side of the eye were two small holes through which a thread was placed that held the prosthesis in place (Owen 2007).
The archaeologists working at the site initially believed the eyeball might have been put in the woman’s eye for burial. However, an imprint in her eye orbit caused by long-term contact with the eye and marks from the thread revealed the woman had worn the prosthesis in life. Archaeologists also found that the woman may have had an abscess on her eyelid caused by consistent contact with the golden eyeball (Owen 2007). Pictures of the prosthetic eye and the discovery can be seen here.
Roman artificial leg, c. 300 BC. Retrieved on August 4th, 2014 from: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/classical_and_medieval_medicine/a646752.aspx
Aufderheide, A, & Rodriguez-Martin, C. (1998). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Buquet-Marcon, C., Charlier, P., & Samzun, A. (2009). A possible Early Neolithic amputation at Buthiers-Boulancourt (Seine-et-Marne), France. Retrieved on August 4th, 2014 from: http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/buquet322/
Choi, C. (2007). World’s First Prosthetic: Egyptian Mummy’s Fake Toe. Retrieved on August 4th, 2014 from: http://www.livescience.com/4555-world-prosthetic-egyptian-mummy-fake-toe.html
Owen, R. (2007). 5,000-year-old artificial eyeball found. Retrieved on August 4th, 2014 from: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/europe/article2594684.ece