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10 Ancient Prosthetics That Deserve a Hand

by Jana Louise Smit
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Modern prosthetics are madly amazing. Some technologies allow amputees to feel what they’re touching with artificial fingers, and strides are being made in mind-controlled prosthetics.

However, prosthetics are not a new invention. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, artisans crafted incredible replacements for people who lost a body part. From an eye made of fat to a murdered pharaoh missing a toe, here are 10 notable prosthetics from the past.

Related: Top 10 Disgusting And Unexpected Medical Treatments

10 The Hand of Prêles

EARLIEST HUMAN BODY PART representation in Europe | A Bronze Age Prosthetic?

In 2017, treasure hunters in Switzerland searched for valuables near the village of Prêles. While doing so, they disturbed an ancient grave. Among the items they found were a rib bone, a bronze dagger, and an unusual metal hand. When the treasure hunters delivered this cache to the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern, the hand was the star attraction.

Slightly smaller than a real hand, the artifact was made of bronze and tin and outfitted with a gold cuff. It weighed almost 18 ounces (17 grams) and had a hollow socket at the bottom. The latter feature suggested a few possible uses for this mysterious hand.

Although none can be definitively proven, the hand could’ve been a prosthetic, a ceremonial object once mounted on a scepter, or part of a statue. The fact that it was buried with the man suggested that it was a prosthetic or simply a status symbol. Whatever it was, at 3,500 years old, the unique artifact is the oldest metal sculpture of a human body part discovered in Europe thus far.[1]

9 A Special Foot

Researchers In Austria Discover 1,500 Year Old Skeleton With Prosthetic Foot

In 2013, archaeologists were digging next to a medieval church in southern Austria when they found a grave. It contained the remains of a man, aged 35 to 50, who’d been buried sometime between AD 536 and 600. Artifacts inside the grave identified him as a member of the Franks, a group of Germanic tribes.

However, it wasn’t until 2016 that researchers published the most interesting details about the discovery. The man had a prosthetic foot. At 1,500 years old, the left foot is one of the oldest prosthetic limbs ever discovered in Europe. It was crafted from wood and the design also included an iron ring. Signs of wear and tear proved that the foot wasn’t a cosmetic funeral touch. The man once used it as a practical walking aid to get around.

The lower part of his leg and foot was missing, but the healed bone showed that he survived the amputation and lived for at least two more years. This was surprising, as, during that time, most people would quickly succumb to an infection after such a traumatic procedure.[2]

8 A Four-Fingered Hand

Ancient Prosthetic Marvel 600 Year Old Metal Hand Unearthed in Germany.

In 2023, pipeline workers In Germany accidentally disturbed an ancient grave near Munich. Once the archaeologists arrived, they determined that the man in the grave died at the age of 30 to 50, sometime between 1450 and 1620.

What made the discovery so exceptional was his hand. The bones of his thumb were present, but the rest of his fingers were gone. In the place of the missing digits, he wore an iron glove with four fingers.

The fake fingers were hollow, stiff, and curved slightly to lend a natural look to the prosthetic. Scraps of materials suggested that leather straps fixed the device to the man’s hand while gauze-like fabric was stuffed inside to protect his skin from chafing against the metal.

It’s unknown how the man lost his hand. However, he lived in a time fraught with military activity, and it’s not hard to imagine that he suffered a devastating injury to his hand during combat, potentially leading to the amputation of his four fingers.[3]

7 A Luxury Toe

This 3,000-Year-Old Wooden Toe Shows Early Artistry of Prosthetics

West of Luxor, in Egypt, nestles an ancient chapel. Here, important people close to the royal family were buried. In one of the tombs, archaeologists stumbled upon a priest’s daughter with a remarkable prosthetic—a super realistic big toe. Expert hands had carved the appendage from wood, and quality straps attached it to the mummy’s foot. Aged at around 3,000 years, the toe was quickly declared one of the world’s first prosthetics.

In 2017, the artifact was subjected to a battery of tests using technologies such as computer imaging, x-rays, and modern microscopy. The study revealed that the carver was a gifted artisan and well-trained in human anatomy and that a real attempt was made to provide the woman with a natural-looking foot.

The technical expertise was also obvious in the mobility and comfort provided by the prosthetic. Indeed, the tests revealed that the toe was refitted several times to ensure that she could walk as normally and comfortably as possible.[4]

6 Precursor to Modern Tooth Bridges

400 Year Old False Teeth Found In Italy | Archaeological Discoveries

In 2016, archaeologists excavated two tombs in Lucca, Italy. Within the jumbled remains of about 100 people was a set of false teeth. Due to the chaos inside the graves, it couldn’t be matched to a single individual nor accurately dated, but experts estimated the device was around 400 years old.

The unique dental prosthesis consisted of five real teeth, all from different people. Whoever made the artifact didn’t bother with accuracy, as the three incisors and two canines were arranged in the wrong order. That didn’t mean the “dentist” wasn’t innovative. They removed the tips from each tooth’s root, made a lengthwise cut across the roots, aligned the teeth, and linked them with a golden band. Each tooth was also fixed to the band by two tiny golden pins.

Apart from being the first physical evidence of appliances designed to hold loose teeth, as described in the 16th and 17th centuries, it also resembled the Maryland bridge technique. This advanced method was developed in the 1970s. It produced a bridge with small “wings” on both sides that are attached to adjacent teeth for stability.[5]

5 A Deadly Prosthetic

They Found Medieval Merle Dixon!

The Middle Ages was a dangerous time, and one man fit right in, even though he was an amputee. In 1985, archaeologists found his remains in Italy and noticed that his arm had been cut off at the mid-forearm.

It’s not known how the man lost his arm. However, since his people, a Germanic group called the Longobards, were rather combative, he could’ve lost his arm on the battlefield or required amputation due to a conflict-related injury.

Here’s where things get unusual. The man, who died aged 40 to 50, replaced his hand with an iron knife. While it gave him a pirate-esque look, researchers believe that this peculiar choice wasn’t just for self-defense but also to help him with daily tasks.

The weaponized hand was attached to his arm with straps, which he held and tightened with his teeth during the fastening process (the teeth on the right side of his mouth showed extreme wear, which supported this theory).[6]

4 A Golden Mouth Plate

Archaeologists in Poland found an interesting prosthesis made for a man 300 years ago.

Today, children born with cleft palates can correct the condition with surgery. But 300 years ago, there was no such medical intervention. An afflicted person would likely struggle for the rest of their life with speech, swallowing, and breathing. But one man who lived during the 18th century in Poland had it lucky. Someone made him a prosthetic plate to help him live a more normal existence.

Ancient solutions for cleft palates are not unknown, but experts have never seen anything like this artifact. The exceptional prosthesis was forged of copper, gold, and silver. Wool and felt-like materials were also used to make the plate more comfortable and better fitting.

The man’s remains and his device were discovered in 2024, and a close examination showed that the individual was born without a hard palate. This was a serious defect, but the well-crafted plate allowed him to live more comfortably with the condition until he died at around age 50.[7]

3 A Postmortem Prosthesis

Inside The SHOCKING Truth Of Ramses III. Death

Ancient Egypt is known for many great things, including the pyramids, hieroglyphics, art, and their iconic gods. But when it came to who should rule Egypt, civility often vanished in favor of murder plots. One such assassination occurred in 1155 BC. According to papyrus documents, the drama happened because Queen Tiye wanted to remove Pharaoh Ramesses III and put her son on the throne.

When the mummified body of Ramesses III was examined in 2012, researchers realized that he was indeed murdered by several attackers. One assassin approached the pharaoh from behind and used a blade to cut his trachea and esophagus. Another attacked from the front with an ax or sword. This individual hacked off Ramesses’s big toe.

To replace the missing digit, the embalmers fashioned a “toe” out of linen and placed it on his foot. This just goes to show that not all ancient prostheses were for the living, or grand, for that matter. Not even if you were a king.[8]

2 The World’s Oldest Prosthetic Eye

The World’s Oldest Known Artificial Eye, It belongs to a 5000-year-old woman discovered in Iran

In 2006, Iranian archaeologists made a historical find near the city of Zabol. The team was excavating the Burnt City, a human settlement thousands of years old, when they happened upon the 5,000-year-old skeleton of a woman.

She was roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall, an unusual height for women of the time. But more intriguing was one of her eyes. The left eye socket contained an artificial eye made of animal fat and natural tar. The artist went to great lengths to make the globe realistic, even recreating tiny blood vessels by using thin golden wires. The artifact was also wrapped in a layer of gold and engraved with a circle to represent the iris.

The prosthetic eye—said to be the world’s oldest—wasn’t a cosmetic touch added after her death. The young woman wore it often during her lifetime of 25 to 30 years. Evidence supporting this included two holes on either side of the eye that likely kept the eye in place during use and the presence of eyelid tissue on the prosthetic’s surface.[9]

1 A Non-Amputee with A Prosthetic Leg

MYSTERIOUS Archaeological Discoveries in China

When thinking about an artificial leg, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t that the person using it still has both legs. Such was the case of a man who lived 2,200 years ago near Turpan, China.

In 2016, an ancient tomb revealed a man with a deformed leg. The knee and leg bones were fused in such a way that it prevented him from straightening his left leg, keeping it fixed at an 80-degree angle. To help the man walk, a prosthetic leg was placed under and against the knee and fastened to the thigh with straps. Unusually, at the bottom of the wooden leg was a real horse hoof, which acted like a foot.

It’s unclear why the man’s knee fused at such an odd angle. Among several possible causes of bone fusion is inflammation. Evidence suggested that the man suffered from tuberculosis in the past. This infection might have caused sufficient inflammation to encourage abnormal bone growth, which eventually fused his knee.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Jana Louise Smit

Jana earns her beans as a freelance writer and author. She wrote one book on a dare and hundreds of articles. Jana loves hunting down bizarre facts of science, nature and the human mind.

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