Monday, June 30, 2008

Ancient prosthetics 101

Regulars to the Scribbling Corner might be wondering if they're on the right blog. Don't worry, you are. :)

I mentioned in my post on character names that Aelius, the Roman protagonist of my Severan novel, will later gain the epithet “Argentocoxos” (Silver Foot), the name of a Caledonian referred to once in passing in Cassius Dio’s account of Septimius Severus’ campaigns in northern Britain. The big question was: how do I get from “Aelius” to “Argentocoxos”? It was going to have to be a nickname of some sort, but why was Aelius going to end up being called “Silver Foot”?

The answer turned out to be one of those things that occur to me just as I’m dozing off. “What if,” I thought, “Aelius ends up losing a foot and having a fake one put in its place? Made of silver? Like that guy from that Irish myth, only with a foot. Yeah... Zzzz...”

That seemed fair enough, and I promptly fell asleep. But then, in the cold light of day, I started reassessing it. Knowing next to nothing about medical history, I wondered, did they even have prosthetic limbs in the third century AD? And if they did, were they likely to be made out of silver? So I’ve spent the last week or so doing a bit of research on the history of prosthetic limbs, in order to come up with an answer. D’you want the short version or the long version?

Tough. You’re getting the long version. :)

Our earliest recorded description of a prosthesis is to be found in the Indian Rig Veda, which may date back as far as c. 3500 BC, but whose present form is conventionally dated to about 1700 - 1100 BC. One of the hymns mentions the warrior Vishpala, who loses a leg in battle and has an iron one made to replace it so she can re-enter the combat. The second millennium BC is also when we begin to find artificial body parts appearing in the archaeological record, the earliest examples of which are the artificial toes discovered with two Egyptian mummies. The oldest of these dates from 1295 BC, and at least one - the wooden and leather “Cairo toe” - appears to have been a functioning prosthetic, rather than a cosmetic touch.

Prosthetics also appear in the classical world, in literature and mythology, and also in archaeology. The bronze “Roman Capua Leg”, dating back to c. 300 BC, was, until the discovery of the aforementioned Egyptian toes, the oldest example we had of an ancient prosthetic. Classical historians also offer historical anecdotes of people with artificial limbs. For example, Pliny the Elder tells us, in the seventh book of his Natural History, of Marcus Sergius, the great-grandfather of Catiline, who, during the Second Punic War (218 - 201 BC) had his right arm amputated after sustaining injuries and had an iron hand created so he could return to battle.

So, we know the Romans had prosthetics. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether the Celtic-speaking peoples did. I think, however, it’s reasonable to assume that they did on some level. It’s interesting that the two documented examples I’ve already mentioned - Vishpala and Marcus Sergius - were warriors. I wonder if, in history, it was the warriors who were the most likely to want artificial limbs. The prostheses of Vishpala and Sergius would certainly have been as cosmetic as they were functional, if indeed they were functional. I suppose, especially for a warrior, a truncated limb would be a visible admission of weakness.

That brings us to the Celts. Given the nature of their culture, I imagine their healers must have been used to dealing with body parts which had got mangled in battles and cattle-raids. And with the Celts being as aesthetically aware as they were, I imagine there must have been some chieftain or other at one time who decided to go for a shiny fake hand or leg to show off to his clients. Unfortunately, we don’t have any records of Celtic prosthetics in archaeology or any historical documents. We do, however, have some myths which suggest that artificial limbs weren’t unknown in the Celtic world.

The first, and most obvious, is the Irish figure Nuada Airgetlám - “Nuada of the Silver Hand” (Welsh correspondent: Nudd Llaw Eraint). According to legend, Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who lost his hand (or his arm, depending) in single combat, and had to relinquish his leadership. Dian Cecht, the god of healing, made for Nuada a silver hand which functioned as a normal one. This was eventually replaced by a real arm made by Dian Cecht’s son Miach (which drove the god to kill his son out of jealousy) and Nuada was restored to the kingship.

Another example can be found in the legend of the Breton/Cornish Saint Melor. The story goes that the uncle of the young prince Melor decided to make a grab for the throne, and, in an attempt to eliminate a potential rival, intended to have the boy murdered. He was dissuaded from actual killing, however, and instead had Melor’s right hand and left foot cut off (wow, nice). These were replaced with prostheses made, respectively, from silver and bronze, which grew as Melor did and functioned, like Nuada’s silver hand, as if they were made of flesh and blood.

Of course, these are legends, so the parts about the artificial limbs working like normal ones should really be taken with a pinch of salt. Nuada’s hand was, after all, made by the god of healing himself, and Melor was a saint, so obviously the hagiographer had to fit some miracles into the boy’s tragically short life. What’s noticeable about these stories, however, is that it’s the abilities of these metal limbs that are remarkable, not existence of the limbs themselves, which could be taken to mean that the Celtic-speaking peoples knew about prosthetics. Saint Melor belongs to the post-Roman Early Historic period - ie, in a time which has had experience of Roman surgical practice - but it’s a general assumption that the Irish myths, although written down during this same period, represent oral traditions that go back long before. It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the Celts had some form of prosthetic know-how. And as far as Aelius is concerned, given that most of the prostheses referred to above were made out of metal, a silver foot is possible, from both a historical and mythological standpoint.

Which throws in a whole new plot point. Aelius will be vying for a Caledonian kingship, and an amputation will prove to be an obstacle. One of the stipulations in the Irish law tract Cóic Conairi Fuigill - “The Five Paths of Judgement” - is that a candidate for the kingship must be free of any physical blemish. This can be seen in the legends of both Nuada and Saint Melor, where their disabilities are enough to disqualify them. A real life example of this law in practice can be found in (of all things) the Bechbretha - a tract on beekeeping - in which it’s written that King Congal Cáech was put out of the running after being blinded by some bees.

So perhaps, although Aelius’ eligibility to the kingship is put in doubt after his amputation, it’s this silver foot which helps to preserve it. After all, I doubt Dian Cecht would have gone to the trouble of making that silver arm if it wasn't going to reverse Nuada's fortunes at all! I’ll see how it goes.

Whew! All that for the sake of a name. Now I just need to work out why Aelius is going to lose that foot. Frostbite? Gangrene? Freak hunting accident? Or perhaps that should be “accident” with the inverted commas?

I’m so nice to my characters, aren't I?


- Early Medieval Ireland, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Longman publishing, 1995
- BBC News article on the Egyptian toes
- History of Prosthetics, by the University of North Carolina
- Pliny's account of Marcus Sergius, from the Perseus Digital Library
- my lecture notes on Early Historic kingship (they'll do)


Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, and accident like Celede's who accidentally fell into Imerix'sword. Aelius could fall into some rival's axe. :)

And with his Roman connections, he may be able to get a Roman surgeon help him, which would make things easier, historically.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol. "I thought he was a deer. Honest." People were so clumsy in those days ;)

And even if he can't get hold of a friendly surgeon, I'm sure there's always some hapless army surgeon who they can kidnap. Mwaha.

Gabriele C. said...

Ouch, I forgot a word in my post. Now it sounds like Celede is the poor victim; what I meant was "Celede's character".

Silverwolf said...

Hi Kirsten

Love your blog post!

Would you mind if I reposted it (with full credit, of course) on our site?

All the best


The Celtic Myth Podshow

Kirsten Campbell said...

Hi, Silverwolf, and thanks for dropping in. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Wow. Mm. On your website? Really?

Hm. I'll have a think, and get back to you via email, okay?

All the best.