Ancient Skulls Found in Greece Show Signs of Complex Surgery

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
June 16, 2023

An ancient skull that was discovered by anthropologists in the Paliokastro area of the island of Thasos, Greece shows signs of complicated surgery.

The skull, which dates from the early Byzantine period — the fourth to the seventh century AD — bears traces of surgery that are “incredibly complex,” according to researcher Anagnostis Agelarakis, Ph.D., who teaches at Adelphi University.

The discovery was made by an Adelphi University research team led by Agelarakis. A total of ten skeletons, of four women and six men, were found and studied. They are likely to be persons of high social status, based on the location and architecture of the burial site.

Skulls with signs of surgery found in Greece
“According to their skeletal-anatomical features, both men and women lived physically demanding lives…The very serious trauma cases sustained by both males and females had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced physician/surgeon with great training in trauma care. We believe it to have been a military physician,” Agelarakis, told AMNA recently.

In regards to the man’s skull, “even despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was given to this surgery for this male. So it’s likely that he was a very important individual to the population at Paliokastro.”

The report also notes that it is likely that the person had an infection that required surgery, while the other man, presumably an archer, appears to have died shortly after or during the doctor’s attempt to save him.

“The surgical operation is the most complex I have ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials,” Agelarakis said. “It is unbelievable that it was carried out, with the most complicated preparations for the intervention, and then the surgical operation itself which took place, of course, in a pre-antibiotic era.”

The findings can be found in detail in a new book, titled “Eastern Roman Mounted Archers and Extraordinary Medico-Surgical Interventions at Paliokastro on Thasos Island during the ProtoByzantine Period,” by Archaeopress, Access Archaeology.

Brain surgery nearly 1,800 years ago
In 2019 Greek archaeologists uncovered a rare find, the skeletal remains of a young woman who appears to have undergone brain surgery – nearly 1,800 years ago.

The bones, which date from the third century, were found in one of more than 1,000 graves excavated in an ancient cemetery near the city of Veria in Greece.

The young woman appears to have undergone brain surgery. Credit: Ministry of Culture

“We interpret the find as a case of complicated surgery which only a trained and specialized doctor could have attempted,” Ioannis Graikos, the archaeologist who led the dig, told the Associated Press.

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

A photograph of the skeleton, released by the Greek Ministry of Culture, shows a large hole in the skull. Experts believe the operation would have been attempted to repair damage from a blow to the head.

“It is likely the patient would have been conscious, and it would certainly have hurt a bit,” said Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist for English Heritage. “Early surgical manuals show patients having brain surgery before anesthetic would most probably have been pinned down to stop them writhing around.”