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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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3.5 Battle wounds and surgery in medical texts and archaeology

In the first century CE, Celsus described surgical procedures in some detail in books 7 and 8 of his work on ancient medicine. Book 8 focused on bone surgery. Actual surgical tools have been found, but it can be difficult to match them to Celsus’ descriptions. The tools he recommends for broken bones are often confused with iron carpentry tools in the archaeological record, and doctors possibly borrowed carpentry tools as needed: for example, saws and chisels, which would be used in amputations.

Fourteen different Greco-Roman surgical instruments.
Figure 19 Greco-Roman surgical instruments

Some of the commonly used objects, such as scalpels and spoons, look similar to modern surgical objects, but could have been used for other purposes, such as kitchen cutlery. In fact, some spoons found with identified Roman surgical kits are identical to ones found as cooking implements. The forceps look like modern tweezers and probably served as many functions as they do today. A vaginal speculum could also be used to hold flesh open during the removal of a weapon, as discussed in Celsus.

Roman surgical instruments, including two probes and forceps.
Figure 20 Roman surgical instruments

Activity 6

  1. Read the following sections of Celsus, in which he describes the procedures for the removal of projectile points lodged in the body (Y-shaped tool, cyacisthus, or Spoon of Diocles [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , and probes for bones). Does he give a clear description of the tools? How does his description compare with that shown in the image from Pompeii in Figure 18, and with what Virgil describes in the Aeneid?
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  1. One instrument described is the ‘Spoon of Diocles’. Try to make a drawing of it from Celsus’ description. Does Celsus give a good description of the objects?