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Some of the comprehensive set of Roman medical tools discovered in doctors tomb in Hungary. Source: ELTE BTK

Physician’s Tomb Holds Comprehensive Set of Roman Medical Tools

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Some two thousand years, an ancient Roman physician made a trip to Hungary, for unknown reasons, and now, archaeologists have found his tomb near Jászberény, a city located approximately 50 miles from Budapest. Buried with his medical equipment, his tomb’s presence has puzzled historians, who are unable to glean why this physician travelled to this part of the globe, so far away from home.

The Fully Equipped Physician From A Land Far Away

According to a news release from Eötvös Loránd University, the tomb has been untouched for about 2,000 years. It includes the physician's skeletal remains, with an intact skull and leg bones, found alongside wooden chests containing an exceptional collection of medical tools. The equipment was of high quality and included pliers, needles, and scalpels with replaceable blades. It also included a grinding stone, potentially used to mix medicines or sharpen blades. Clearly, the physician did not leave much to chance.

Dr. Samu Levente, presenting the physician’s skeleton and Roman medical tools revealed in Hungary this week. (ELTE BTK)

Dr. Samu Levente, presenting the physician’s skeleton and Roman medical tools revealed in Hungary this week. (ELTE BTK)

This collection of medical equipment is only the second comprehensive set of similar ancient Roman medical tools to have ever been found. The only other collection of this kind was discovered in Pompeii.

The equipment was of high quality and included pliers, needles, and scalpels with replaceable blades. (ELTE BTK)

“The examination of the tools quickly revealed that this was a Roman burial complex, and the grave was that of a physician, whose equipment had been placed in two wooden boxes next to his feet. The tomb contained the remains of a man aged between 50 and 60 years, with no signs of trauma or disease. The grave was almost completely undisturbed, except for an animal disturbance which had moved one of the scalpels from the foot to the head. The tomb yielded pincers, needles, tweezers and high-end scalpels suitable for surgical operations, as well as remains of medicinal products,” said Leventu Samu, assistant research fellow from ELTE’s Institute of Archaeology, at a press conference.

This period in Jászság may have been a transitional period between the Celtic and Roman Sarmatian populations. It is not clear from the current data whether the physician buried in the tomb was there to heal a local leader of high prestige or whether he was accompanying a military movement of the Roman legions, explained András Gulyás, archaeologist and museologist at Jász Museum.

The Physicians of Ancient Rome

This discovery has provided an entry point into learning more about the medical practices of the ancient Romans and how they potentially travelled to other regions to provide medical care.

The Roman medical tools found in the tomb were of extremely high quality and provided a glimpse into the advanced medical practices of ancient Rome. The pliers, needles, and scalpels were outfitted with replaceable blades, indicating that the physician was skilled and prepared to deal with a wide range of medical issues, according to the release.

The find represents the second most comprehensive set of Roman medical tools, matched only by one from Pompeii. (ELTE BTK)

Archaeologists will undoubtedly continue to study the physician's remains and medical equipment in order to gain a better understanding of this period in history. There is also the chance to learn about the medical practices of the ancient Romans, which continues to inspire modern medicinal practices.

The Medicinal Ways of the Ancient Romans

In ancient Rome, medicine was practiced by a range of people, including physicians, surgeons, midwives, and other healers. Physicians were trained in Greek medical traditions and often received their education at an imperial center, such as Alexandria, reports UNRV. They were generally of a higher social status and were paid for their services.

Surgeons, on the other hand, were often slaves or freedmen, and were not as respected as physicians. They typically performed basic procedures, such as setting bones, and would often use cautery to stop bleeding.

One notable Roman physician was Galen, who lived in the second century AD. He wrote extensively on medicine and his works remained influential in Europe for centuries. Galen believed in a theory of the four humors, which suggested that the body was composed of four fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Illness was thought to occur when these humors were out of balance.

Treatments for illnesses would aim to restore the balance of the humors, often through the use of herbs and other natural remedies, and a mixture of magic and religion, explained W. A. Scott’s seminal 1955 article.

Surgery was also practiced in ancient Rome, although it was often seen as a last resort. Instruments such as scalpels, forceps, and bone hooks were used, and surgical procedures could include amputation, trepanation (drilling a hole in the skull), and removing bladder stones. Anesthesia was not used, so surgical procedures were often very painful for the patient.

The medical practices of the Romans were not always effective, and many treatments were dangerous, sometimes fatal. For example, the use of lead in plumbing and cosmetics may have contributed to lead poisoning, which was a common cause of illness and death in ancient Rome. The wisdom gleaned from the Greeks and Etruscans about medicine were passed on to future civilizations, and have today achieved renewed interest.

Top image: Some of the comprehensive set of Roman medical tools discovered in doctors tomb in Hungary. Source: ELTE BTK

By Sahir Pandey

References

ELTE Institute of Archaeology, 2023. World Sensation from JÁSZSÁG. Available at: https://www.btk.elte.hu/content/vilagszenzacio-a-jaszsagbol.t.7977

Istvan, K. 2023. Sensational find: 2000-year-old tomb with unique surgical tools unearthed in Hungary. Available at: https://dailynewshungary.com/2000-year-old-find-with-unique-surgical-tools-unearthed-in-hungary-photos/.

Rascius, B. 2023. Ancient Roman doctor made mysterious trek to Hungary. Photos show his rare grave. Available at: https://www.sacbee.com/news/nation-world/world/article274758151.html#storylink=cpy.

 
Sahir's picture

Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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