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Detail of “A verger's dream: Saints Cosmas and Damian performing a miraculous cure by transplantation of a leg.’ Master of Los Balbases, ca. 1495. Source: Public Domain

Brain Surgeons Performed Complex Procedures on Byzantine Warriors

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Human remains found on a Greek island are changing how experts view the development of surgical interventions in the proto-Byzantine period. A skull shows the traces of complex brain surgery. The find is casting new light on the medical knowledge and skills of doctors and surgeons in the Byzantine Empire.

The skeletal remains were found on the island of Thasos, in the Paliokastro area by a team from Adelphi University, led by Anagnostis Agelarakis, PhD. A total of 10 skeletons, four females and six males, were unearthed. It is believed that the males were once mounted warriors, either horse archers or lancers. It was established after tests that they belonged to individuals from ‘the early Byzantine period — the fourth to the seventh century AD,’ according to The Greek Reporter. This was the time when the Roman Empire was evolving into the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Byzantine church on Thasos. (Anlanjoejoseph/CC BY SA 3.0)

Byzantine church on Thasos. (Anlanjoejoseph/CC BY SA 3.0)

Graves of Mounted Archers and Lancers

The bones were found in an ancient Christian burial ground and not far from a mortuary church. According to The Times, the remains are ‘likely to be persons of high social status, based on the location and architecture of the burial site.’ Documentary sources indicate that heavy cavalry and horse archers were considered elite troops by the Romans and later the Byzantines and would have had quite a high social standing as a result. It is believed that the women found buried at the site were related to the dead men, possibly their wives.

Agelarakis, an anthropologist and his team examined the bones of the dead and found that they had suffered trauma and received extensive medical care. The team leader told The Greek Reporter that “The very serious trauma cases sustained by both males and females had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced physician/surgeon with great training in trauma care.”

It is believed that only military doctors had the required skill levels to perform such operations. The Roman legions had long employed professional medics and even had dedicated hospitals, and the Proto Byzantines continued this tradition.

Ancient Brain Surgery

One male skull that belonged to an archer or lancer amazed the team. News Medical reports that ‘Agelarakis and his colleagues were able to derive medical and surgical data, as well as paleopathological data’ from the remains. This data provided conclusive evidence of sophisticated brain surgery. Agelarakis told The Greek Reporter:

“The surgical operation is the most complex I have ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials.”

The procedure on the skull is known as trephination and it involved drilling two tiny holes into the cranium.

Ectocranial view of the brain surgery of paleopathological specimen: a) red arrow points to orifice on the mastoid process, and b) surgical preparation dimensions peripheral to trephination. (Anagnostis P. Agelarakis /Adelphi University)

Skills of Byzantine Brain Surgeons

An examination of the data suggests it is likely that the person had an infection and that the surgery was an attempt to save the man’s life. But any surgical intervention in the pre-antibiotic age was very dangerous. The Greek Reporter states that the researchers noted that ‘despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was given to this surgery for this male.’

This individual was clearly very important in the local community. However, despite the skills of the military surgeon, it appears that the man died during surgery or shortly after because there is no evidence of healing on the cranium.

An extensive report on the discoveries on the Greek island has been published in book form and is entitled ‘ Eastern Roman Mounted Archers and Extraordinary Medico-Surgical Interventions at Paliokastro in Thasos Island during the Proto-Byzantine Period.’

The findings from the burial site have revealed the sophistication of Early Byzantine medical professionals, especially those who served in the military. It also demonstrates the high social standing of military professionals, such as horse archers or lancers, and their families.

Top Image: Detail of “A verger's dream: Saints Cosmas and Damian performing a miraculous cure by transplantation of a leg.’ Master of Los Balbases, ca. 1495. Source: Public Domain

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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