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Greek dig yields evidence of ancient brain surgery

March 15, 2008|From the Associated Press

THESSALONIKI, GREECE — Greek archaeologists have unearthed evidence of what they believe was brain surgery performed nearly 1,800 years ago on a young woman who died during or shortly after the operation.

Although references to such delicate operations abound in ancient writings, discoveries of surgically perforated skulls are uncommon in Greece.

Site excavator Ioannis Graikos said the skeleton was found during a rescue dig last year in Veria, a town 46 miles west of Thessaloniki. "We interpret the find as a case of complicated surgery, which only a trained and specialized doctor could have attempted," Graikos said.

A bone expert who studied the find said the skeleton belonged to a woman of up to 25 years old who had suffered a severe blow to the crown of her head, Graikos said. The operation was apparently an attempt to save her life.

He said the clearly defined shape of the hole in the skull was a sign of relatively sophisticated surgery.

"She probably did not survive the operation, as the wound was very large, and there are no signs of healing around the edges," Graikos said.

The discovery in Veria appears to be similar to several others made in other parts of the former Roman Empire, said Simon Mays, an expert on human skeletal remains at English Heritage, a body that advises the British government.

"That kind of operation dates back a long way. . . . The earliest example dates back about 5,000 years ago in Europe," said Mays, who was not connected to the Greek excavation.

In early examples, cruder holes were made in the skull by slowly scraping the bone away around the edges, but more precise instruments were used in Roman times, he said.

Graikos said the find attested to the social and medical sophistication in Veria, which in the 3rd century during the period of Roman rule was one of Greece's main civic centers and the capital of a federation of Macedonian cities.

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