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A buckle and part of a strap were found with the metal pieces. Credit: Border Archaeology

Scientists Solve Mystery of Iron Strap and Buckle Unearthed in Medieval Cemetery


Archaeologists digging at Gloucester Cathedral, UK, have unearthed a strap for a medieval “false leg.” The metal pieces from the prosthesis band were discovered with a skeleton in the old lay cemetery of the church. The excavation is part of the ongoing Project Pilgrim scheme to redevelop parts of the cathedral.

Clogged in Mud

The pieces, including a metal buckle and a piece of the strap, were uncovered in the dig south-east of the building's South Porch. Helen Jeffrey from the cathedral told BBC, “We expected to find some burial sites and skeletons as it used to be a lay cemetery and these little pieces of iron were found in a grave with a skeleton. It was just a real puzzler and we had it taken away to be analyzed - something similar is on display in London.” Experts examining the new finds claim that traces of bone and perhaps wood, found with the band, imply that the device supported a prosthetic leg. Helen Jeffrey said, “We are astonished they found it, it was clogged in mud and looked like little pieces of stones.” The metal object is destined to go on display at the cathedral in the near future.

The Long History of Prosthetics

If you think that prosthetics are the product of contemporary science and medicine, then it’s time for you to reconsider. As DHWTY reports in a 2014 article at Ancient Origins, the origins of prosthetics has a truly ancient history. The oldest known prosthesis that is in existence is from ancient Egypt. In 2000, researchers in Cairo unearthed a prosthetic big toe made of wood and leather which was attached to the almost 3000 year old mummy of an Egyptian noblewoman. As the ancient Egyptians perceived the afterlife as a perfect version of this life, it would have been important for them to go there with their body parts intact. This is evident in the fact that a variety of prosthetic devices have been found on mummies. These include feet, legs, noses, and even penises.

A 3000-year-old prosthetic big toe.

A 3000-year-old prosthetic big toe. Photo source: Discovery.

Centuries later, during the zenith of the Roman Empire, we get introduced to the use of iron as a material for a prosthetic device. More specifically, Marcus Sergius was a Roman general who had lost his right hand during the second Punic War. According to the sources, Sergius had a prosthetic arm made of iron that allowed him to hold his shield. Despite these early advances in ‘prosthetics technology’, there was not much development in this area in the millennia that followed. For instance, iron prosthetic arms and legs were still in use during the Middle Ages, which was more than a thousand years after Marcus Sergius.

Artificial leg, England, 1890-1950.

Artificial leg, England, 1890-1950. Credit: Science Museum, London

However, with the tremendous evolution of technology, the progress that took place during the 20 th century is undeniable. Today's devices are much lighter, made of plastic, aluminum and composite materials to provide amputees with the most functional devices.  In addition to lighter, patient-molded devices, the advent of microprocessors, computer chips and robotics in today's devices are designed to return amputees to the lifestyle they were accustomed to, rather than to simply provide basic functionality or a more pleasing appearance. Prostheses are more realistic with silicone covers and are able to mimic the function of a natural limb more now than at any time before.

Modern-day prosthesis

Modern-day prosthesis (CC by SA 3.0)

Top image: A buckle and part of a strap were found with the metal pieces. Credit: Border Archaeology

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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