'Chelsea Man' Reveals Work of Bronze Age's Top Brain Surgeons

Article excerpt

Byline: NILUFER ATIK

FOR years it lay hidden beneath the earth - a priceless yet undiscovered example of one of man's first surgical procedures.

But now the skull, dating back almost 4,000 years, has finally been retrieved and casts light on the gruesome practice of trepanation - drilling or gouging a hole in the head with the aim of relieving a variety of ailments.

The Bronze Age adult skull was discovered on the banks of the Thames at Chelsea. Experts believe it provides the earliest known example of trepanation found in London.

The male skull, named Chelsea Man, was accidentally found by archaeologists during one of their regular inspections of the river foreshore.

Although human skulls with trepanation holes have been unearthed before, Chelsea Man is the first ever dated example discovered in London.

A spokeswoman for English Heritage said: "This is a very exciting find. This teaches us a little bit more about the city's history. Although we have found skulls before in the Thames we have never found one that has been trepanned that we could actually date."

Around 40 trepanned skulls have been discovered in Britain, dating from Neolithic to post-mediaeval times. The practice was used to treat physical and mental ailments, and also for ritual purposes.

Dr Simon Mays, English Heritage expert on human remains, said: "Trepanning is probably the oldest form of surgery we know. The trepanning on this skull would have been carried out with a scraping tool, probablya flint, using great care to avoid piercing the brain.

"The skull shows there were people in Britain at the time with significant anatomical and surgical skills."

Accounts based on observation of societies where the practice occurred much later describe the surgeon peeling back flaps of skin, and covering the hole in the skull with a coconut shell and banana leaves. It is believed Chelsea Man, whose skull dates back to 1750BC, would probably have relied on leaves, dried grass or thin bark to cover the wound, and the operation would have taken between 30 minutes and an hour.

Bone regrowth around the edge of the hole, which measures around 45mm by 30mm, proves that - although there were no efficient antiseptics or anaesthetics in the Bronze Age - patients survived the operation. …

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