Bronze Age Surgery Evidence Found in Thames

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You never know what you’re going to find when you fish stuff out of the Thames. The latest stunning discovery is evidence of brain surgery done 4,000 years ago.

Seems that a skull that had been, up until now, existing quite unremarkably at the bottom of the River Thames is currently the focus of a debate on Bronze Age medical practices. Now, it’s not entirely clear why these things take so long to be revealed to the public. The skull was found in October, so it’s reasonable to assume that discussions have been ongoing since then. It’s equally likely that the story has surfaced only now because the archaeological and medical communities have wanted to keep it under wraps.

Whatever the reason, the news has just come out. And here it is:

The skull has a 1.8-inch-by-1.2-inch hole in it. This suggests that the patient (whom scientists know to be an adult male who lived about 1750 B.C.) had a hole drilled into his head and part of his brain removed. The technical term for this procuedure is trepanation. Basically, it’s a big headache that, doctors hope, will result in the patient’s improving by getting rid of whatever is ailing him.

But what was ailing this man enough to warrant such drastic medical practice?

Scientists and physicians of long ago thought that trepanation helped relieve headaches and head trauma by relieving pressure in the head. They thought that drilling a hole in the head would allow air in and pressure out. Whether they considered that such a practice would invite worse problems isn’t evident. (Remember, these people still didn’t know that infections were caused by viruses or bacteria.)

Alternately, such a practice was carried out in hopes of curing epilepsy or mental illness by releasing the evil spirits that were causing such things. How did such an advanced (advanced, of course, because a variation on it is still used today, together with the most modern infection-prevention procedures, of course) medical idea exist alongside such a superstitious belief? Only the Bronze Age surgeons know for sure.

But trepan they did, likely with a flint or some such other object that had varying degrees of sharpness, and they appear to have been experts at it. About 40 trepanned skulls have been found in Britain. The oldest of these is 5,000 years old. Surgeons in Britain appear to have more advanced than other European physicians, for hundreds of years.

Still, no anesthetic …