Skeleton reveals ancient Greek brain surgery

By Rachel Shields
Friday 14 March 2008 01:00

Greek archaeologists have uncovered a rare find, the skeletal remains of a young woman who appears to have undergone brain surgery – nearly 1,800 years ago. The bones, which date from the third century, were found in one of more than 1,000 graves excavated in an ancient cemetery near the city of Veria in Greece.

"We interpret the find as a case of complicated surgery which only a trained and specialised doctor could have attempted," Ioannis Graikos, the archaeologist who led the dig, told the Associated Press. "She probably did not survive, as the wound was very large and there are no signs of healing around the edges."

A photograph of the skeleton, released by the Greek Ministry of Culture this week, shows a large hole in the skull. Experts believe the operation would have been attempted to repair damage from a blow to the head. "It is likely the patient would have been conscious, and it would certainly have hurt a bit," said Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist for English Heritage. "Early surgical manuals show patients having brain surgery before anaesthetic would most probably have been pinned down to stop them writhing around."

The skeleton was among other bones discovered in the two cemeteries at the Veria site, which dated from the third century BC to the third century AD. While many were surrounded by gold and bronze jewellery, pottery, coins and other trinkets such as glass bottles, the woman's body was in an empty grave. The modern-day city of Veria, where the third-century bones were discovered, was built on the ruins of the ancient city of Beroea, which was ruled by the Roman Empire from 168BC.

Roman physicians regularly attempted a form of brain surgery called "trepanation" – which involved drilling a hole through a patient's skull – as a way of relieving pressure to the brain and curing headaches. But the methods that were used on the young woman seem to be evidence of a different technique.

"The sloping sides of the hole suggest that the surgeon used a sharp implement to scrape away at the bone – scratching a deep gully in the skull until he could prise that section of bone away," Mr Mays explained. This was less likely to cause brain injury than other techniques... such as drilling or hammering."

Although such methods may seem primitive, experts point out that some techniques are very similar to those used in modern neurosurgery – just minus the anaesthetic and antiseptic.

"I examined remains... where a person with a cranial fracture had been operated on. It looked like the doctor had removed fragments of bone and relieved pressure on the brain in the same way as they would if you fractured your skull now," said Mr Mays.

A 6,000-year old skeleton discovered in Cappadocia, Turkey, is thought to be the earliest example of brain surgery. Archaeologists have uncovered Neolithic skeletons – dating from the late Stone Age period, roughly 1,000 years later – in Ukraine and Germany, which bear the marks of similar procedures.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments