Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Medieval Surgeons Were Advanced

Medieval Surgeons Were Advanced
BBC News

Surgeons were carrying out complicated skull operations in medieval times,
the remains of a body found at an archaeological dig show.

A skull belonging to a 40-year-old peasant man, who lived between 960 and
1100AD, is the firmest evidence yet of cranial surgery, say its

The remains, found in Yorkshire, show the man survived an otherwise fatal
blow to the head thanks to surgery.

Nearly 700 skeletons were unearthed by English Heritage at a site near

Complex surgery

Scientists have been examining the remains from the now deserted village
of Wharram Percy.

Once a thriving community built on sheep farming, it fell into steep
decline after the Black Death and was eventually completely abandoned.

The skull in question, dating back to the 11th century, had been struck a
near-fatal blow by a blunt weapon, causing a severe depressed fracture on
the left hand side.

Closer examination revealed the victim had been given life-saving surgery
called trepanning.

A rectangular area of the scalp, measuring 9cm by 10cm, would have been
lifted to allow the depressed bone segments to be carefully removed.

This would have relieved the pressure on the brain.

Roman and Greek writings document the technique of trepanning for treating
skull fractures, but there is no mention of it in Anglo-Saxon literature.

Some historians have theorised that western Europe was deprived of such
surgical knowledge for centuries after the fall of Alexandria in the 7th

Violent times

Dr Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at English Heritage's Centre for
Archaeology, said: "This skull is the best evidence we have that such
surgery to treat skull fractures was being performed in England at the

"It predates medieval written accounts of the procedure by at least 100
years and is a world away from the notions that Anglo-Saxon healers were
all about spells and potions."

Skulls dating back to Neolithic times show trepanning was performed on
individuals with no head wounds.

Historians believe this was presumably to treat other ailments, possibly
including mental illness.

The skull of the 40-year-old Yorkshire peasant shows the fracture healed

Scientists believe the hole that remained would have eventually closed
over with hard scar tissue.

But they have questioned how a peasant would have been able to afford this
complicated medical treatment.

Examination of the other skeletons at the site revealed high levels of
malnutrition, disease and stunted growth.

Dr Mays said: "Medical skills were largely reserved for the elite.

"So the treatment handed out to Wharram's peasant doesn't square at all
with our knowledge of the period.

"It seems most probable that the operation was performed by an itinerant
healer of unusual skill, whose medical acumen was handed down through oral

Ten of the other skeletons, including a child, also showed signs of head
injury caused by blunt objects.

Dr Mays said: "Violence at Wharram seemed to involve objects that were
near at hand, like farming tools.

"The peasant was probably involved in the medieval equivalent of a pub
fight, or could have been the victim of a robbery or a family feud."