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Burial of medieval man with knife-hand prosthesis discovered in northern Italy

The Laboratory of Paleo-Anthropology and Bio-Archaeology at the Sapienza Department of Environmental Biology has analysed the skeletal remains of a Langobard warrior found in a necropolis in Veneto and conserved at the university’s “G. Sergi” Museum of Anthropology.

Burial of medieval man with knife-hand prosthesis discovered in northern Italy
Photo and drawing of T US 380 showing the orientation of the right arm, the position of the D-shaped buckle,
 and the location of the knife [Credit: Micarelli et al./Journal of Anthropological Sciences]
The studies conducted in collaboration with the Sapienza Department of Antiquities and the Archaeology Doctorate School, in collaboration with the Milan “Cattolica” University, have revealed that the warrior had undergone the amputation of his right hand, wrist and forearm. This represents an important example of a perfectly healed amputation and modern medicine practice.

The researchers hypothesised a series of different circumstances that could explain both the causes (what led to the amputation of the forearm) and the results (the incredible survival 1300 years ago of such a risky operation in an era when antibiotics did not exist).

“The knife lay horizontally across the waist, while it would normally have been buried alongside the body,” explains Ileana Micarelli, the first signatory of the study. “The right arm was bent at a ninety-degree angle with a clean cut of the forearm’s radial and long bones. Moreover, the archaeologists found a metallic fibula and traces of organic matter – either wood or leather – where the hand should have been found. The amputation was performed with a single clean cut and no anaesthesia.”

The study, which has been published on the Journal of Anthropological Sciences, hypothesises that the man belonged to the first generation of Langobard warriors who arrived in Italy from Eastern Europe. The amputation of his arm was most probably caused by falling of the horse, a battle wound or the imposition of a penalty.

The skeletal remains of the warrior reveal not only that the arm was completely healed, but also evident defects in the warrior’s bones and teeth that were the natural consequence of the loss of a hand. In fact, the bones in the scapula have an unnatural orientation. This was probably adopted after the accident, when the man was forced to push or stab objects rather than grab them with his hand. Moreover, his right incisive tooth was extremely worn and conserves traces of leather. This probably means that the warrior used his teeth to tie the prostheses to his arm and perform other daily gestures.

Furthermore, the fact that the forearm’s radial and long bones were perfectly fused, forming a callus with the prosthesis – the blade – along with the lack of any sign of infection, reveals that the man was carefully cured. Indeed, the Langobards made wide use of herbs to produce natural antiseptic and anti-haemorrhagic balms.

“Surviving the loss of a forearm in an age when antibiotics did not exist,” concludes Professor Micarelli, “reveals the constant care and attention that this warrior received by his community. These are privileges that not only foreshadow modern welfare, but most probably exclude a punishment as the cause of the amputation.”

Credit: Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza" [April 13, 2018]


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