Prosthesis found on Ancient Skeleton of Man whose Foot was likely Cut Off in Battle
A man whose foot was apparently amputated in battle during the sixth century AD had a prosthesis and may have used a crutch, says a team of researchers. An analysis of the man’s skeleton, exhumed from a cemetery in Hemmaberg, Austria, suggests he rode horses, leading them to conclude he was a cavalryman and was injured by a foot soldier.
While prostheses are known from ancient times, few have survived to the present because they were usually made of wood, and organic material disintegrates quickly. The man’s skeleton had an iron ring above where his foot would have been and other evidence of a prosthesis on his left leg plus osteoarthritis that suggested he used a crutch.
The foot was missing from near the ends of his lower leg bones, the tibia and fibula, says an article in Forbes that reports on new research to be published in March in the International Journal of Paleopathology by bioarchaeologist Michaela Binder. She is with the Austrian Archaeological Institute.
“Several bioarchaeological studies of war-related trauma in Medieval cemeteries and mass graves have found the tibia to be a common site of sharp force trauma and have been interpreted as being inflicted by men on foot to mounted men,” wrote Dr. Binder and her colleagues.
Note the missing left foot of the Hemmaberg man, seen here in his grave, apparently cut off by a foot soldier while he was doing battle on a horse. (Photo courtesy of the Austrian Archaeological Institute)
Though the region was occupied by various forces, it was likely ruled by the Franks at the time the man died. “It is not possible to say who he would have been in war with or if at all,” Dr. Binder wrote to Ancient Origins in e-mail. “The 5 th/6th century is not very well known for this region at all. However, at that time period we can assume smaller local feuds occurred quite frequently. There are several contemporary cemetery sites around the site where the prosthesis was found, and preliminary observations indicate repeated episodes of interpersonal violence.”
The Battle of Tolbiac, painted by Joseph Blanc in the 19 th century, depicted warfare between the Franks and Alamannis. The apparent Austrian knight came a bit later than this battle but was himself apparently injured in combat. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Hemmaberg was the site of many Christian churches in the Late Roman to Early Medieval periods and was a place of pilgrimage. Binder and her team have done archaeological excavations of graves near St. Hemma and Dorothea Church and observed early Christian burials. They had few grave goods, the bodies were unclothed and they were aligned east to west.
The grave of the knight, who was 35 to 50 years old at death, was close to the church and was buried with an ornate brooch and a short sword. He had lived with the amputated foot for some time prior to death.
Professor Binder and team did X-rays and CT scans and found that his bones told a story about his life. In addition to the foot amputation, he had suffered a broken nose that was healed by the time he died. He also had cavities in many of his teeth, and arthritis in his hips, shoulders, wrist, spine and left knee. The lower leg bones had small circular holes, which the researchers said indicated they were infected. Osteoarthritis in his left knee indicates he was probably still using his left leg after his foot was amputated. The X-rays also showed bone-density changes to his left fibula, tibia and femur, compared to the right side, which did not have an amputation and whose bone density was normal.
Dr. Binder and her co-authors wrote: “Remnants of wood together with the position of the iron ring in the grave suggest that the prosthesis may have consisted of a wooden peg reinforced with an iron band on the bottom. The dark staining covering the remaining left tibia and fibula of the individual may have derived from a leather pouch or wooden construction used to strap the prosthesis to the remaining leg.”
The iron ring that reinforced the prosthesis (Photo courtesy of the Austrian Archaeological Institute)
The researchers speculated about how the man sustained the injury. Was it from medical amputation? Possibly, as amputations predate the 6 th century, but such operations were not usually done at mid-bone but at the joint. They also ruled out mutilation as punishment, which was reserved for vassals, while the Hemmaberg man had apparently had a high position in society. They concluded it was either an accident or deliberately inflicted trauma such as might happen during battle, Forbes says.