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An Egyptian Wooden Toe: World’s Oldest Prosthesis

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Meet the world’s oldest prosthesis: a 3,000-year-old wooden toe discovered in an ancient cemetery in Egypt.

Wooden Toe in Female Burial

An artificial wooden toe has been found in a female burial located in the necropolis of Sheikh ’Abd el-Qurna, Egypt. The ancient prosthetic, dating back to the early first millennium BC, might be one of the oldest prosthetic limbs in human history. The discovery was made by Egyptologists from the University of Basel working in collaboration with researchers from the Cairo-based Egyptian Museum (where the toe was taken), and the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich.

The excavation area in the cemetery of Sheikh ’Abd el-Qurna. Photo credits: Matjaž Kacicnik/ University of Basel, LHTT.

Owner: Priest’s Daughters with Good Taste

The toe was analysed with modern microscopy, X-ray techniques, and computer tomography. A highly developed device, it was apparently refitted more than once for a priest’s daughter.

The wooden toe prosthesis discovered in a female burial; via Egyptian Museum Cairo, JE100016a. Photo credits: Matjaž Kacicnik/ University of Basel, LHTT.

The artisan who made it appears to have been quite familiar with human physiognomy: his skills are reflected in the way the prosthetic extension moves as well in the well-built, strong belt strap. Furthermore, the meticulous way in which it was fashioned testifies to its owner’s regard for both aesthetics and comfort; the researchers also point out that she was able to find qualified experts to do the job.

Understanding Skills, Practices, Habits, and Preferences

The tomb in which the discovery was made was linked to an older idle burial chapel which was part of a series of rock-cut tombs dating back to 15th century BC used to shelter the remains of an upper class population associated with the royal family. This elite cemetery has been the object of scrutiny of researchers since 2015. For the new study, the team used microanalytic and precision technology to survey and photograph that particular area—the aim is to gather information about the composition of the archaeological remains to gain an understanding of the building of structures and objects during that time. The material biographies are thought to, in turn, help researchers to know more about the manufacturing processes and uses pertaining to those peoples, their personal skills and habits and predilections.

3D Map of the Cemetery

The researchers are also looking forward to creating a 3D map of the cemetery. Experts are currently endeavouring to produce geometric precise digital models of the area. These will be coupled with archaeological and geological 3-D maps to generate the morphology of the region, including the subterranean structures. The development of the necropolis and its use phases will, then, be reconstructed and simulated.

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