Ancient Bionics: The Origins of Modern Prosthetics


Prosthetics have recently been in the news for all sorts of reasons – from bionic eyes to limbs that resemble works of art. But where (and when) did it all begin?

Delving into illness and death might seem macabre, but it turns out that some of the most gruesome parts of archaeology are actually some of the most astonishing!

Take prosthetics, for example. They’ve recently been in the media for all sorts of reasons, and can be seen to reflect the way society views bodies and disability. Now, we see bionic eyes and hands and artificial limbs becoming more than just replacements, in many cases they’re becoming enhancements and, as the alternative limb project shows, even a form of personal empowerment and expression.

Modern prosthetic leg.jpg

But when did the use of prosthetics begin?

The earliest example of a functional (rather than just aesthetic) prosthetic known is an artificial toe dating to 700 BCE. Unearthed in Cairo, the toe was found attached to the mummy of a priests’ daughter. It’s made in three pieces from wood and leather and has a mechanism for being attached to the foot. It even shows sign of wear and tear that prove it really did help the girl walk around.

Prosthetic toe.jpg

Another artificial toe of similar age was found in 1881, though there is not as much evidence for its use as a prosthetic in life. It is possible that this toe – named the Greville Chester Great Toe after the man who acquired it – was attached to the body after death to make the body whole.

How do I look? Ancient peoples were concerned with appearance

In addition to the functionality of these earliest prosthetics there is evidence that past peoples were worried about how they looked.

Prosthetic eye

A 5,000 year-old prosthetic eye was uncovered near the Iranian-Afghan border. This hemispherical artifact was not only decoratively engraved, but also appears to have been covered in a layer of gold. The eye socket of the eye’s owner shows patterns of wear proving the eye was worn in life – a glinting, golden eyeball must have created an incredibly striking visage!

An incredible neolithic skull dating from 3,000 BCE was unearthed in France that had a prosthetic ear made from shell attached. This demonstrates that the idea of replacing missing body parts existed very early on, there’s no way this prosthetic could have served any other purpose than pure aesthetics!

prosthetic ear.jpg

Prosthetics technology did not advance for centuries

The Romans used metal to create prostheses, as evidenced by the Capua Leg – a bronze artificial leg with a wooden core dating to 300 BCE. It’s difficult to say whether this was more aesthetic or functional – just think how incredibly heavy and unwieldy it must have been for its owner.

Ancient prosthetic leg.jpg

The medieval period had similar metal prosthetic technology, but they also did something curious – they introduced hooks to replace hands. Was this aesthetic or functional? Finally, we reach the 16th century where many consider the origins of modern prostheses to begin with creations by army surgeon Ambroise Paré. His innovations are still used in prosthetics technology today.

There have been many steps taken in technology throughout history to allow modern doctors, engineers to create the incredible bionic bodies we see today. And we now know some of the first ones were helped along by a little wooden toe.

Tune in next week for a spotlight on the terrifying surgical tools of antiquity!

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Anna van Nostrand

Written by Anna van Nostrand

One of DigVentures’ intrepid Community Archaeologists, Anna is all about spreading the good word of Archaeology. A big kid herself, her main focus is the getting young venturers involved.

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