Medieval glass shards linked to royal tragedy

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The Independent Online
MEDICAL EVIDENCE of a 700-year-old royal tragedy has been unearthed by archaeologists excavating a medieval palace in Surrey. The shattered remains of glass equipment used by 13th-century physicians have been found in a cesspit during excavations at the site of what was once a great royal palace in Guildford.

The medical items - very fine bulbous flasks used for the examination of patients' urine samples - were made of ultra-thin blown glass, some between a tenth and a quarter of a millimetre thick.

Because of their date and location, it was likely that the glass flasks were used by physicians treating the then heir to the throne, Lord Henry, the son of Edward I.

The financial accounts of the prince's household show that on 14 January 1274, three glass flasks, known as urinals, were purchased for physicians to use in connection with his treatment. Lord Henry died in October 1274 at the age of six, probably of tuberculosis or some other respiratory disease.

Glass urinals were used to determine the colour and composition of urine. Special illuminated manuscripts detailing what the shades signified were carried by physicians. Most manuals listed 20 different shades of yellow, green, red - and even blue, which apparently signified gout.

Physicians were also expected to smell and taste a patient's urine, as well as examine it visually. They saw no danger in such taste tests because they had no knowledge of germs.

The excavations, directed by Rob Poulton, head of Surrey County Council Archaeological Unit, are revealing the original ground plan and subsequent development of the palace.

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