Caution in Interpreting Alternative Explanations of Ancient Artifacts

A few weeks ago, an article highlighted the finding of female bones in a burial along with a sword. It was interpreted that the sword belonged to a distinguished female warrior and was interpreted as evidence against patriarchal assumptions.

(p. D1) The epitaph on more than one Roman tombstone read: “A gang of doctors killed me.”

Medical remedies have improved since those times — no more smashed snails, salt-cured weasel flesh or ashes of cremated dogs’ heads — but surgical instruments have changed surprisingly little. Scalpels, needles, tweezers, probes, hooks, chisels and drills are as much part of today’s standard medical tool kit as they were during Rome’s imperial era.

Archaeologists in Hungary recently unearthed a rare and perplexing set of such appliances. The items were found in a necropolis near Jászberény, some 35 miles from Budapest, in two wooden chests and included a forceps, for pulling teeth; a curet, for mixing, measuring and applying medicaments, and three copper-alloy scalpels fitted with detachable steel blades and inlaid with silver in a Roman style. Alongside were the remains of a man presumed to have been a Roman citizen.

The site, seemingly undisturbed for 2,000 years, also yielded a pestle that, judging by the abrasion marks and drug residue, was probably used to grind medicinal herbs. Most unusual were a bone lever, for putting fractures back in place, and the handle of what appears to have been a drill, for trepanning the skull and extracting impacted weaponry from bone.

The instrumentarium, suitable for performing complex operations, provides a glimpse into the advanced medical prac-(p. D4)tices of first-century Romans and how far afield doctors may have journeyed to offer care. “In ancient times, these were comparatively sophisticated tools made of the finest materials,” said Tivadar Vida, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Eötvös Loránd University, or ELTE, in Budapest and leader of the excavation.

Two millenniums ago Jászberény and the county around it were part of the Barbaricum, a vast region that lay beyond the frontiers of the Empire and served as a buffer against possible outside threats. “How could such a well-equipped individual die so far from Rome, in the middle of the Barbaricum,” mused Leventu Samu, a research fellow at ELTE and a member of the team on the dig. “Was he there to heal a prestigious local figure, or was he perhaps accompanying a military movement of the Roman legions?”

. . .

The tool-laden grave was discovered last year at a site where relics from the Copper Age (4500 B.C. to 3500 B.C.) and the Avar period (560 to 790 A.D.) had been found on the surface. A subsequent survey with a magnetometer identified a necropolis of the Avars, a nomadic peoples who succeeded Attila’s Huns. Among the rows of tombs, the researchers uncovered the man’s grave, revealing a skull, leg bones and, at the foot of the body, the chests of metal instruments. “The fact that the deceased was buried with his equipment is perhaps a sign of respect,” Dr. Samu said.

That is not the only possibility. Dr. Baker said that she often cautioned her students about interpreting ancient artifacts, and asked them to consider alternative explanations. What if, she proposed, the medical tools were interred with the so-called physician because he was so bad at his practice that his family and friends wanted to get rid of everything associated with his poor medical skills? “This was a joke,” Dr. Baker said. “But it was intended to make students think about how we jump to quick conclusions about objects we find in burials.”

For the full story, see:

Franz Lidz. “Old Roman Medicine Wasn’t So Pleasant.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 13, 2023): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story also has the date June 13, 2023, and has the title “Scalpel, Forceps, Bone Drill: Modern Medicine in Ancient Rome.”)

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