Man attacked with blunt object is saved by surgery to his skull... 1,000 years ago

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The Independent Online

The skull of an Anglo-Saxon peasant who died about 1,000 years ago has been found with signs of trepanning, the first known example of skull surgery being used in Britain to treat a head injury.

The skull of an Anglo-Saxon peasant who died about 1,000 years ago has been found with signs of trepanning, the first known example of skull surgery being used in Britain to treat a head injury.

The discovery shows that even the poorest classes of medieval society had access to relatively sophisticated medical treatment - the procedure entails the surgical removal of cranial bone to relieve pressure on the brain caused by a blow to the head.

The skull is from one of nearly 700 skeletons unearthed at the now deserted village of Wharram Percy near Malton in North Yorkshire and belongs to a man who died at about the age of 40 between 960 and 1100AD.

Fragments of the skull were excavated in 1978 but it was only after they were reconstructed that the details emerged about what had happened to him, said Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at English Heritage. "[He] was probably involved in the medieval equivalent of a pub fight, or could have been the victim of a robbery or family feud," Dr Mays said.

After suffering skull fractures from a blow to the head with a blunt object, the man had surgery to remove fragments of bone from the injury and to relieve pressure on the brain.

"It pre-dates medieval written accounts of the procedure by at least 100 years and is a world away from the notions that Anglo-Saxon healers were all about spell and potions," Dr Mays said.

The skull has a rectangular area of "pitting" about 9cm wide where a flap of the scalp had been lifted to reveal the injury. Someone had then skilfully scraped away the bone to clean the injury and relieve pressure on the brain.

Dr Mays said scar tissue had formed over the hole left in the skull and that the man lived for many years after the operation.

Although trepanning dates back to the Stone Age and is mentioned in Roman and Greek texts, it was usually performed on people whose skulls showed no other head wounds, and had presumably been carried out because they were mentally ill, Dr Mays said.

The man was buried in the village churchyard, which was reserved for local peasants. It surprised the archaeologists that such sophisticated surgery was done on the poorest people.

"Medical skills were largely reserved for the elite. It seems probable the operation was performed by an itinerant healer of unusual skill," Dr Mays said.

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