Medieval prosthetic hand discovered

An x-ray reveals the structures of the prosthetic hand in the corroded lump. © Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation

Surprising grave find: Archaeologists have discovered the skeleton of a man in Freising who wore a prosthetic hand around 500 years ago. The sophisticated construction made of iron and non-ferrous metal documents how the late medieval “medical technicians” tried to make life easier for people with disabilities, say the experts.

Unfortunately, they don't grow back - but if body parts are lost through accident or illness, there are at least replacement options. Today's prosthetics already look back on a long history: replicas of body parts have been known since ancient times and they were also demonstrably used in various forms in the Middle Ages and early modern times. A famous case is the “Iron Hand” of the knight Götz von Berlichingen. According to tradition, he wore a metal prosthesis after losing his right hand to a cannon shot during the siege of Landshut.

The iron hand of Freising

However, centuries-old remains or finds of such prostheses are rare. For this reason, the current discovery in Freising, Upper Bavaria, is causing enthusiasm among archaeologists. As the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD) reports, an old grave came to light during pipeline work near the Freising parish church of St. Georg.

The skeleton with the metal prosthesis in the grave in Freising. © Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation

The team of archaeologists who were summoned discovered the skeleton of a man who, according to his bone characteristics, had died between the ages of 30 and 50. Later radiocarbon dating showed that he could have lived in the late Middle Ages or the early modern period. The earliest date dates back to the middle of the 15th century.

The special thing about this find became apparent at the end of the skeleton's left arm bone: instead of the hand bones, there was a corroded lump there, which aroused the curiosity of the archaeological team. After recovery and documentation, this piece was roughly cleaned in the BLfD's restoration workshops and then X-rayed. The hidden structures in the lump then became apparent. The remains of the left hand are contained in a sophisticated construction made of iron and non-ferrous metal: a hand prosthesis.

Replicated fingers

The more detailed examinations then revealed that they were hollow structures that complemented four fingers: the index, middle, ring and little fingers were individually formed from sheet metal. These replicas lie parallel to each other, slightly curved. The archaeologists report that the man's thumb was apparently still intact: they found this bone corroded to the inside of the prosthesis.

As further investigation results showed, the construction was originally covered with leather. Inside the iron hand there was also the remains of a gauze-like textile, which was probably used to pad the stump of the hand. “The prosthesis was probably tied to the stump of the hand with straps,” says Walter Irlinger from the BLfD. However, exactly how the man used the prosthesis remains unclear. At least it is clear that people were already thinking about how to make life easier for amputees back then, writes the BLfD.

It remains unclear why the man lost his fingers except his thumb. But traces on the preserved bones indicate a deliberate amputation. This surgical procedure may have been necessary as a result of an accident at work - or after a military injury. The period of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period saw many military conflicts in Central Europe and also in the discovery region: as a bishop's seat and later an imperial-free corporate state, Freising acquired considerable importance in the Middle Ages, which was also reflected in military conflicts. This may have been the background to the story of the man with the iron hand in old Freising.

Source: Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation

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