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Swiss Egyptologists studying a 3,000-year-old wooden prosthesis

In a press release, Egyptologists at the University of Basel in Switzerland say they have been studying a 3,000-year-old wooden toe found in a necropolis near Luxor, formerly known as Thebes.

The prosthesis was found in a plundered bedrock shaft tomb in an older, long time idle burial chapel at the graveyard hill of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna to the west of Luxor. The tomb was part of a group of rock-cut tombs that date from the late 15th century BC which were built for a small upper class that was close to the royal family.

View of the excavation site in the cemetery of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna to the west of Luxor

View of the excavation site in the cemetery of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna to the west of Luxor
University of Basel LHTT/Matjaž Kačičnik

Archaeologists, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, have been excavating the Egyptian elite cemetery since 2015, gaining insight into its long history of usage and surroundings, using microanalytic, scientifically oriented methods, as well as precision technology and photography.
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Andrea Loprieno-Gnirs of the university’s department of ancient civilizations external link coordinated the archaeological dig in Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna, whose oldest tombs date back to the early second millennium BC. Referring to the prosthesis, she told, “This extraordinary piece was a sensational find.”

The big toe is carved from wood and is attached to the foot by a sewn leather wrapping.

The big toe is carved from wood and is attached to the foot by a sewn leather wrapping.
Jon Bodsworth

The prosthetic toe
The beautifully crafted prosthetic is fitted with a lace-up strap and belonged to a priest’s daughter who obviously cared greatly about her appearance. The ancient Egyptians often wore open-toed sandals, so a well-formed foot was important to the elite.

“The wooden toe shows that she had a certain living standard, and also that there were craftsmen capable of making such prosthetics,” Loprieno-Gnirs said.

The researchers used modern microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography in studying the device and found the toe had been refitted several times to ensure the comfort of the girl, whose big right toe had been amputated. No other toes were missing.

The big takeaway from this research is finding out that knowledge in anatomy, medicine, and aesthetics was highly valued in the ancient culture, and there were skilled craftsmen capable of doing meticulously beautiful work.

A soldier in the U.S. Army plays fooz-ball with two prosthetic limbs.

A soldier in the U.S. Army plays fooz-ball with two prosthetic limbs.
U.S. Army

Prosthetic limbs in history
Prosthetics are not unheard of in ancient times. An early mention of a prosthetic comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who tells the story of Hegesistratus, a Greek diviner who cut off his own foot to escape his Spartan captors and replaced it with a wooden one.

Pliny the Elder also recorded the use of prosthetic devices, citing a Roman general who had lost his hand in battle and had it replaced with a wooden one so he could hold his shield. But the very oldest known mention of a prosthetic device can be found in the book of the Vedas, written in Sanskrit in India.

Without a doubt, though, wars have contributed more to the development of prosthetic limbs than any other event. We have seen great advances in the creation of artificial limbs throughout our more recent history. From WWI and up through today, manmade limbs have become more lifelike and functional because of modern robotics and other technologies.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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