Archaeologists have unraveled the demise of a high-ranking warrior in ancient Greece who underwent an incredibly complex head and neck surgery 1,500 years ago.
The male is believed to be a high-ranking Caballarius – a mounted archer or lancer – in the Greek army whose life was eventually ended by a deadly ear infection.
Detailed analysis of the bones from a site in Paliokastro, on the Greek island of Thasos, revealed that he had undergone ‘extraordinary’ surgery.
A blow to the head tore his eardrum and caused an infection. Complications then led to the need for breakthrough surgery by a highly skilled military physician.
A series of holes about 9 mm wide was carefully drilled into the bones of his head in an attempt to relieve pressure, pain and unwanted effusions.
Despite the efforts of the prominent surgeon, the muscle-bound archer died of his infection during or shortly after surgery.
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Detailed analysis of the bones from a site in Paliokastro, on the Greek island of Thasos, revealed that a high-ranking soldier underwent ‘extraordinary’ surgery (shown, evidence of the cuts by the skilled doctor)
it is believed that a blow to the warrior’s head ruptured his eardrum and caused an infection. Complications then led to his death, and even a very skilled doctor fought in vain to save his life by drilling holes into his bones with precision (shown, one of the holes)
Researchers from Adelphi University studied the ten skeletons, four women and six men, who were buried on the island of Thasos from the fourth century AD. Pictured, the cemetery
“The surgery is the most complex I’ve ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials,” said Professor Anagnostis Agelarakis, an anthropologist at Adelphi University in New York, who led the study.
“It is incredible that it was performed with the most complicated preparations for the procedure, and then the surgical procedure itself, which of course took place in a pre-antibiotic era.”
The injured Caballarius was one of ten buried individuals found on the island.
Researchers noticed an almost perfectly cylindrical hole drilled through his mastoid process – the pointed piece of bone behind the ear.
Analysis showed that this was a form of trepanation, a surgical procedure in which holes are drilled in the human skull to treat various health problems.
However, it has been done carefully and with exceptional precision to prevent it from entering the dura mater, a thick membrane that surrounds and protects the brain.
Anthropologists used modern forensic anthropological techniques, including high-resolution X-ray imaging, to reveal the extent of the surgeon’s attempts to save the soldier’s life.
The individual is thought to have had a blow to the head, possibly also with severe facial and skull wounds.
This broke his eardrum and allowed for the spread of pathogens, causing a serious infection.
It is believed that this led to severe middle ear infection and in a pre-antibiotic era, complications would worsen his condition.
The warrior’s health deteriorated, leading to growths on the skin that ultimately caused “destructive effects on adjacent brain tissues, on nerves and blood vessels through increased physical pressure, infection and erosion.”
The injured Caballarius was one of ten buried individuals, and researchers noticed an almost perfectly cylindrical hole drilled through his mastoid process – the pointed piece of bone behind the ear (photo)
This hole was about 9mm in diameter and it was hoped that it would alleviate some of the pain and bleedings caused by the middle ear infection
The trepanation has been performed with the greatest care not to penetrate the protective membrane surrounding the brain. To ensure this, the doctor scraped a smooth edge around the hole, making the surgical site about 21 mm wide
This may have been the reason for the trepanation in the mastoid process, which in this context is seen as a mastoidectomy, the researchers write.
“To relieve some of the patient’s most painful and debilitating effects by draining the middle ear and mastoid cell extracts.”
Regarding the surgery, Professor Agelarakis added in a statement, “Even despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was made for this surgery for this man.
“So it is likely that he was a very important person for the people of Paliokastro.”
Researchers from Adelphi University studied the ten skeletons, four women and six men, who were buried on the island of Thasos from the fourth century AD.
One of the females was a young female, between 14 and 17 years old.
The others were adults aged 35 to 60 years old. They all have signs of a robust build and were muscular people who led physically demanding lives.
Evidence of large muscles in the neck, shoulders, back and arms reveals people, regardless of gender, trained and relentless.
It is also thought that this regimen would have promoted superior stamina and a reduction in fatigue levels, the authors write.
The researchers add: ‘[These physical attributes] must have been required to perform significantly supportive and repetitive physical actions.
“The nature and specificity suggested long-term training and association with the military arts, particularly the use of the bow, spear and / or sword.”
Pictured, a figure from the scientific paper showing the surgery locations and the range of procedures the doctor undertook 1,500 years ago. the main place of the trepanation is in the center a black hole with blue and yellow arrows pointing to it
The island of Thasos is located just off the coast of the mainland and between Constantinople and Thessaloniki. It has a rich war history due to its strategic location and the inhabitants trained for warfare
Depicted, a map of the island of Thasos, showing the location of the capital Limenas, the villages and settlements, and the location of Paliokastro (where the remains were found) in the region of the village of Rachoni
Several other injuries were found among the ten remains, including well-healed leg fractures, presumably caused by horseback riding across the rugged terrain of the island.
Injuries were treated by the same physician, who may have been permanently stationed at the remote location.
Professor Anagnostis Agelarakis, an anthropologist with the Adelphi history department, who led the study, said, “According to their skeletal anatomical features, both men and women lived physically demanding lives.
‘The very serious trauma cases of both men and women had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced doctor / surgeon with excellent training in trauma care.
“We think it was a military doctor.”
Diseases affecting limbs were often well treated and cured so that the individual could regain full use of the arm or leg, despite common infection.
The findings are described in a new book published by Archaeopress, Access Archeology.
WHAT IS TREPANATION?
Trepanation is a procedure that has been performed throughout human history.
It involves removing part of the skull and was often done in animals and humans.
The first recorded evidence of this was done on a Stone Age cow 3,000 years ago.
It was a process still carried out in the 18th century.
The belief was that in many conditions involving severe pain in a patient’s head, removing a circular piece of skull would reduce pressure.
Previously, dating from the Neolithic age, people drilled or scraped a hole in the head of people who showed abnormal behavior.
It is thought that this would release the demons into the skulls of those affected.
This gruesome-looking toolkit was used by doctors in the 18th century to perform trepanations – removing a piece of skull to relieve pressure in the head