Egyptologists analyse one of the oldest prosthetic devices in history – an Ancient Egyptian wooden toe

egypt-oldest-prosthetic-device-history_1Copyright: University of Basel, LHTT. Image: Matjaž Kačičnik

Touted as possibly one of the oldest prosthetic devices in history, an artificial toe made of wood has piqued the interest of Egyptologists from the University of Basel. The fascinating find was originally discovered inside a female burial tomb from the necropolis of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna (in proximity to Luxor, corresponding to the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes), and is around 3,000-years old. The consequent study and assessment have revealed a bevy of details about the device, in essence testifying to the skills of Ancient Egyptians who were keenly aware of the finer sections of human physiognomy.

The prosthesis, dating from 1st millennium BC, was examined by using state-of-the-art techniques like modern microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography. The conclusion that the researchers derived entails how the device was not a burial offering, but actually a functional equipment that was refitted many times to the foot of its owner – who was a priest’s daughter. Simply put, the artisan who crafted the prosthesis, possessed the aptitude to combine ergonomics via the extension with the sturdiness of the belt straps. As the University of Basel website mentions –

The fact that the prosthesis was made in such a laborious and meticulous manner indicates that the owner valued a natural look, aesthetics and wearing comfort and that she was able to count on highly qualified specialists to provide this.

From the archaeological angle, the prosthetic device, with its origin corresponding to Early Iron Age, was discovered in a plundered shaft tomb. This tomb in turn was actually cut into the bedrock of a burial chapel-style structure at the necropolis of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna (west of Thebes). Most of the rock-cut tombs of this graveyard hill date from around 15th century BC. According to the researchers from the University of Basel, who have been studying the site since 2015, many of these graves were furnished for the upper class that had connections with the royal family. Interestingly enough, some of the rock-cut structures were even renovated millennia later and used as dwellings by early Christian hermits – a tradition that may have survived till the 20th century.


Cemetery of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna Copyright: University of Basel, LHTT. Image: Matjaž Kačičnik

Now the good news for history enthusiasts is that the research team is working on a reconstructive 3D model of this Egyptian necropolis with its history stretching over 3,000 years. According to the University of Basel page –

The specialists [including experts from ETH Zurich] are currently developing geometric precise digital elevation, landscape, and architecture models for this area. These will then be combined to an archaeological and geological 3-D map that will illustrate the morphology of the terrain as well as the investigated subterranean structures. On that basis, the researchers want to reconstruct and simulate the development of the cemetery and its use phases.

And since we are talking about both history and prosthetic devices, the related technical expertise of the ancient times was not only limited to Egypt. For example, back in January of 2016, archaeologists unearthed a 2,200-year old prosthetic leg specimen (pictured below) from an ancient cemetery near Turpan (or Turfan), a prefecture-level city in the very north-eastern part of China. Quite intriguingly, as opposed to a noble buried with his special contraption, the man found in the tomb was probably of humble origins. The experts described their find in a paper published in the journal Chinese Archaeology –

[The prosthetic leg] is made of poplar wood; it has seven holes along the two sides with leather tapes for attaching it to the deformed leg. The lower part of the prosthetic leg is rendered into a cylindrical shape, wrapped with a scrapped ox horn and tipped with a horsehoof, which is meant to augment its adhesion and abrasion.

Moreover, along with the Chinese and the Egyptians, the Romans also devised their versions of the prosthetic limb, as could be attested by a 2,000-year old bronze-made specimen that was housed in Capua. Unfortunately, that particular artificial limb probably got destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II.


The 2,200-year old prosthetic leg specimen found in China.

Source: University of Basel

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