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Ancient prosthesis: Scientists are studying a 3,000-year-old wooden big toe

The prosthetic was found inside a plundered tomb dated to the Early Iron Age.

By Brooks Hays
Ancient prosthesis: Scientists are studying a 3,000-year-old wooden big toe
Wear on the wooden toe suggests the prosthesis was designed to be function, not just for cosmetics. Photo by University of Basel/LHTT

June 20 (UPI) -- Researchers in Switzerland are in the process of analyzing what may be the world's oldest prosthetic device. The 3,000-year-old artificial wooden big toe is offering insights into skills of ancient artisans, as well as the anatomical and medical know how of early physicians.

The prosthesis is of ancient Egyptian origin. It was recovered from a female burial excavated from the necropolis of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, situated near Luxor on the West Bank at Thebes in Upper Egypt.

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The natural and aesthetically pleasing appearance showcases both the skills of local Theban artisans and the high expectations of the wearer, who apparently expected a functional prosthetic, as well as a good-looking one.

Some research has suggested periods of war inspired advancements in prosthetics technology.

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"Then as now, prostheses were collaborative efforts between medics, technologists and artists," Jane Draycott, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, wrote in the Independent.

Researchers at the University of Basel, with help from scientists at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, have used an array of imaging technology to create 3D computer models of the remarkable artifact. The images suggest the wooden toe was refitted at least three time to ensure a comfortable and structurally sound fit.

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The prosthetic was found inside a plundered tomb dated to the Early Iron Age. The tomb was carved into a much older burial chamber known as Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, which was a prominent resting place for a small group of elites during the 15th century BC.

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In addition to imaging and modeling ancient artifacts, Base researchers are also building 3D maps of the site's burial chambers in an effort to document the cemeteries development over time. In more recent centuries, many of the rock-cut structures served as dwellings for locals, including early Christian hermits.

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