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Possible Ancient Brain Surgery Discovered

March 13, 2008

Archaeologists in Greece said Tuesday they have discovered evidence of a brain surgery performed almost 1,800 years ago on a young woman who died during or shortly after the operation.

Although ancient writings have referred to such operations, discoveries of actual evidence, such as surgically perforated skulls, have been uncommon at best.  

“We interpret the find as a case of complicated surgery which only a trained and specialized doctor could have attempted,” said Ioannis Graikos, a site excavator who helped uncover the woman’s skull during a rescue dig last year in Veria, a town about 50 miles west of Thessaloniki.

Graikos told the Associated Press a bone expert who examined the bones determined that the skeleton was that of a woman up to 25 years old who had suffered a severe blow to her head. The operation was an apparent attempt to save her life.

The clearly defined shape of the hole left in the woman’s skull following the surgery was a sign of a relatively sophisticated operation, he added.

“She probably did not survive the operation, as the wound was very large, and there are no signs of healing around the edges,” Graikos said.

The Veria discovery appears similar to others made in parts of the former Roman Empire, said Simon Mays, an expert on human skeletal remains at English Heritage, a British body that advises the government.  Mays was not connected with the excavation.

“That kind of operation dates back a long way … the earliest example dates back about 5,000 years ago in Europe,” said Mays.

Mays said that in earlier times, rough holes were formed in the skull through a slow scraping of surrounding bone, but during Roman times more precise instruments were used.

“We know that (brain) surgery was carried out in the Roman empire, and some of the Roman textual sources give quite precise instructions as to how it should be carried out,” Mays said.

“This probably fits in with a pattern about what we know (the Romans) could do surgically.”

Graikos said the find confirmed the social and medical sophistication in 3rd century A.D. Veria, the period of Roman rule.  During that time, the city was one of Greece’s main civic centers, and the capital of a Macedonian federation of cities.  It contained large public buildings with a carefully planned street network.

“The end to this long period of civic life seems to have been caused by a series of barbarian invasions from the north, shortly after 250 A.D.,” Graikos said.

The archaeologists discovered no other finds apart from the skeleton in the grave, which was one of several contained in two separate cemeteries dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.

Graikos said the older graves included large underground vaulted structures with up to two separate chambers with ornate entrances.

The archaeologists found gold and bronze jewelry, pottery, small glass bottles and vials used for perfumes and cosmetics, coins and weapons in the graves.

However, the newer, Christian-era burials were simpler, he said.

Photo Caption:  The skeleton of a young woman from a 3rd century A.D. grave in Veria, northern Greece, is seen in this undated handout photo provided by the Greek Culture Ministry on Tuesday, March 11, 2008. Archaeologists believe a large hole on the front of the skull, above the eyes, was caused by _ apparently failed _ brain surgery nearly 1,800 years ago. Although references to such delicate operations abound in ancient writings, discoveries of surgically perforated skulls are uncommon in Greece. (Greek Culture Ministry)




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