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Like Something Out of The Walking Dead: Medieval Warrior Found with Knife Hand Prosthesis

In the American post-apocalyptic horror television series The Walking Dead, redneck hunter Merle Dixon fashions a knife attachment onto the stump where his hand used to be. While the storyline is nothing more than fictional horror, one Medieval warrior had come up with the same frightening idea.

In a paper just published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Italian archaeologists have revealed the discovery of a Medieval warrior in the Longobard necropolis in Verona with a well-healed amputated forearm, a buckle and a knife, providing strong evidence that he wore the knife in place of his hand.

A Cemetery of Warriors

The Longobard necropolis of Povegliano Veronese in Veneto, Italy, consists of more than 160 tombs containing the remains of over 200 Longobards (or Lombards), a Germanic people, originally from Northeast Europe, who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774. Following the devastation of the long Gothic War (535-554) between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom, the Lombards had been able to invade Italy with little opposition. They established a Lombard Kingdom in central and north Italy, which was eventually conquered by Frankish King Charlemagne in 774 AD and integrated into his Empire.

While the cemetery contained the remains of men, women and children, most of the male burials contained skeletons with weapons at their sides. Many of them showed signs of cranial trauma, and shields found at the burial site exhibit damage patterns similar to the trauma found on the skulls, indicating they were warriors who most likely died in battle.

Longobard Necropolis, 7th century AD. Teaching and historical re-enactment, at the only necropolis preserved in situ and visible in Italy, located near the Civic Archaeological Museum (CC by SA 3.0).

The Warrior with an Amputated Arm

The male skeleton with the amputation comes from a tomb labelled T US 380.  Analyses on his remains suggest he was around 47 years old and died some time in the last thirty years of the 6 th century AD. Bone testing revealed that he was most likely purposely amputated.

“There are several reasons why a forearm from this cultural period might be amputated,” the study authors Micarelli et al., 2018 report. “One possibility is that the limb was amputated for medical reasons; perhaps the forelimb was broken due to an accidental fall or some other means, resulting in an unhealable fracture. The formation of bone necrosis might have led to a surgical intervention to remove the dead tissue from the healthy part of the limb… Still, given the warrior-specific culture of the Longobard people, a loss due to fighting is also possible.”

“A third consideration for why the limb was amputated would be loss due to judicial punishment,” the report states. “This form of punishment did occasionally occur among the Longobard people.”

The warrior had been placed in a single pit grave like the one shown here in a Longobard necrópolis (CC by SA 4.0 / Marco Tessaro)

Evidence Suggests Warrior Had a Knife-Hand Prosthesis

Warrior T US 380 had been placed in a single pit without a coffin. In addition to his skeleton, archaeologists found a buckle, an iron knife, and non-human organic material (probably leather), close to the end of the amputated right forearm.

The round shaped callous at the end of his amputated forearm suggests there was a biomechanical force placed on the stump, adding to the evidence that the knife and buckle were part of a knife-hand prosthesis worn by the warrior.

“From the archaeological evidence provided, we suggest that a prosthesis might have taken the form of a cap with a modified blade weapon attached to it,” the researchers report.

Warrior T US 380: The orientation of the right arm, the position of the buckle, and the location of the knife, suggest he wore a knife-hand prosthesis. Credit: Micarelli et al. 2018

The Origins of Prosthetics

Last year, archaeologists in Gloucestershire, England, made a similar discovery. A Medieval grave with bones was found to contain an iron strap and a buckle, which researchers later determined were parts of a device that supported a prosthetic leg.

But prosthetics date back much further than Medieval times. The oldest known prosthesis is a big toe made of wood and leather, which was attached to the almost 3000 year old mummy of an Egyptian noblewoman. Numerous other prosthetic devices have been found on Egyptian mummies, including feet, legs, noses, and even penises – all necessary parts for a pleasant afterlife.

Centuries later, during the zenith of the Roman Empire, iron was introduced as a material for prosthetics. Despite these early advances in prosthetics, there was not much development in this area in the millennia that followed. It was not until the evolution of technology in the 20 th century, that there was a great leap in prosthetic technologies. In addition to lighter, patient-moulded devices, the advent of microprocessors, computer chips and robotics in today’s devices are designed to return amputees to the lifestyle they were accustomed to, rather than to simply provide basic functionality or a more pleasing appearance.

False toe on mummy found near Luxor. Egyptian Museum