Evidence found of horseman’s early, complex brain surgery in Ancient Greece

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Surgery was performed by a competent trauma surgeon on a Greek soldier, most probably to tackle a dangerous ear infection.

Mounted soldiers during the Roman Empire lived physically demanding lives, suffering injuries and broken bones.

Remarkably, research has shown that at least some of these highly respected soldiers had access to a skilled trauma surgeon, tending to broken bones from the likes of horse riding and battle-related encounters.

One of the mounted archers or lancers even underwent a surprisingly complex form of brain surgery, according to scientists who studied his remains.

Work undertaken by researchers from Adelphi University in New York State has revealed important insights into the lives of a group of domineering mounted archer/lancers and their kin in the Eastern Roman Empire during the turbulent ProtoByzantine period, which spanned the fourth to seventh centuries.

The remains date from an era when cavalry played an increasingly important role in the Roman army.

Ten skeletal remains — of four women and six men, likely of high social standing — were discovered in the Paliokastro site on Thasos island in Greece.

Their bones yielded important clues about their physical activities, traumas and surgery.

“The burial place and architecture of the funerary monumental church and the construction of the graves is spectacular,” said lead researcher and anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis, who believes it indicates the high social standing of the individuals buried there.

The advanced preservation of their remains and the impressive location and architecture of the funerary monumental church where they were buried exhibit their high status in the region.

“According to the skeleto-anatomic features of the individuals, both men and women lived physically demanding lives,” said Agelarakis, professor of anthropology in Adelphi’s Department of History.

“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. We believe it to have been a military physician.”

As for the brain surgery, Agelarakis suggests that “even despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was given to this surgery for this male”.

“It’s likely that he was a very important individual to the population at Paliokastro.”

Agelarakis and his colleagues were able to derive medical and surgical data, as well as paleopathological data, on this “extraordinary head and neck surgery and the great efforts of the surgeon”.

It was determined that the likely cause for the surgical intervention was infection and that the archer died shortly after or during surgery.

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

“It is unbelievable that it was carried out, with the most complicated preparations for the intervention, and then the surgical operation itself which took place, of course, in a pre-antibiotic era.”

Injuries were dealt with by the same physician, who may have been permanently stationed at the remote site.

The youngest in the group was a woman aged 14 to 17. The others ranged from 35 to 60.

The evidence suggested they were strongly built, with powerful upper body strength, indicating they trained, and probably fought, regularly.

Training probably involved the use of bows and arrows, spears or swords.

Several other injuries were found among the soldiers, among them well-healed leg breaks, most likely incurred from riding accidents or battle.

The results are described in a new book, Eastern Roman Mounted Archers and Extraordinary Medico-Surgical Interventions at Paliokastro in Thasos Island during the ProtoByzantine Period: The Historical and Medical History Records and the Archaeo-Anthropological Evidence, by Archaeopress, Access Archaeology. The book can be read here.

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