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New Revelations When 3,000-Year-Old Prosthetic Toe is Examined with Cutting Edge Technology

New Revelations When 3,000-Year-Old Prosthetic Toe is Examined with Cutting Edge Technology

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Egyptologists from the University of Basel have discovered details of production techniques and usage of one of the oldest prosthetic devices in history after re-examining it with the help of other experts. The find is nearly 3,000 years old and was discovered in a female burial from the necropolis of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna close to Luxor, Egypt.

Advanced Technology Provides Detailed History

As Phys Org reports, the international team of researchers re-examined the unique prosthesis with the help of advanced technology such as modern microscopy, X-rays, and computer tomography. They managed to discover that the wooden toe was refitted many times to the foot of its owner, a priest's daughter. The scientists also re-classified the used materials and identified the practice with which the highly advanced prosthesis was created and used. Experts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – where the prosthetic device has been kept after it was discovered – and the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich also participated in this project.

A view of the excavation area in the cemetery of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna.

A view of the excavation area in the cemetery of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna. (University of Basel, LHTT. Image: Matja Kačičnik)

The artificial toe dates back to the first millennium BC and it is believed to be the first of its kind. In 2000, researchers in Cairo unearthed the prosthetic big toe made of wood and leather which was attached to the almost 3,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian noblewoman identified as Tabaketenmut. It clearly showcases the undeniable skills of an artisan who was very familiar with the human anatomy. His expertise can be clearly traced due to the mobility of the prosthetic extension and the robust structure of the belt strap. The fact that the prosthesis was designed in such an advanced and diligent manner implies that the owner preferred a natural look and a comfortable wearing, which reveals that she had the luxury to hire very talented specialists to create her this unique prosthesis.

Prosthetic toe made of cartonnage, found on the foot of a mummy from the Third Intermediate period (circa 1070-664 BC).

Prosthetic toe made of cartonnage, found on the foot of a mummy from the Third Intermediate period (circa 1070-664 BC). This toe is both younger and of inferior craftmanship (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Origins of Ancient Egyptian Prosthetics

Despite some falsely thinking that the use of prosthetic devices is a modern phenomenon, in reality it was already in use several thousand years ago. As Dhwty reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, the ancient Egyptians perceived the afterlife as a perfect version of this life, so it would have been important for them to go there with their body parts intact. This is evident of the fact that a variety of prosthetic devices have been found on mummies. These include feet, legs, noses, and even penises.

The prosthetic toe in the Cairo Museum.

The prosthetic toe in the Cairo Museum. Credit: Jacky Finch

While this ideological belief may explain the presence of such prosthetic devices on mummies, some of the ancient Egyptian prosthetic devices – as the 3,000-year-old wooden toe – also have had a practical function while the individual was still alive. With the help of volunteers without a big toe, it was shown that the use of prosthetics would have made walking around in ancient Egyptian sandals much easier. Thus, this device had a practical function, alongside a possible ideological purpose.

3-D Technology Provides Life Histories

As Heritage Daily reports, for this study, microanalytic, scientifically oriented methods, as well as precision technology for surveying and photography were used. Furthermore, researchers are examining the materiality of archaeological remains in order to find out more about the life histories of building structures and objects. These material biographies can provide information about the manufacturing techniques, usages, personal skills, habits and preferences of people who were in contact with these objects.

Additionally, Heritage Daily reports that with the help of experts for geodesy and geology from the ETH Zurich, the Swiss team of archaeologists is scientifically evaluating the natural and artificial structures of the excavation area and its surroundings. The specialists are currently developing geometric precise digital elevation, landscape, and architecture models for this area. These will then be combined with an archaeological and geological 3-D map that will highlight the morphology of the terrain as well as the examined subterranean structures. Ultimately, the researchers hope to rebuild and simulate the development of the cemetery and its use phases.

Top image: Toe prosthesis of a female burial from the Theban tomb TT95, early first millennium BC. Egyptian Museum Cairo, JE100016a.Credit: University of Basel, LHTT. Image: Matja Kačičnik

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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