Ancient Egyptian’s wooden toe is sophisticated prosthetic

A wooden big toe that enabled a priest's daughter to walk around 3,000 years ago has been found to be even more complex than researchers believed. It is thought to be one of the oldest prosthetic devices ever found.

A wooden big toe that enabled a priest’s daughter to walk around 3,000 years ago has been found to be even more complex than researchers believed. It is thought to be one of the oldest prosthetic devices ever found.

“By using a sophisticated way of fixing the individual parts of the prosthesis to each other, the artificial limb had a balancing effect and gave, to some extent, a freedom of movement,” said Andrea Loprieno-Gnirs of the University of Basel. The team’s research has not been published yet.

A team of researchers and Egyptologists from the University of Basel, the University of Zurich and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo used the latest technology in X-rays, computer tomography and microscopy to take a closer look at the prosthetic, which has been kept at the Cairo museum since its discovery in 2000.

The surprisingly lifelike toe was made to look natural by a skilled artisan who wanted to maintain aesthetic as well as mobility during the Early Iron Age. It was designed to be worn with sandals, the popular footwear at the time. The prosthetic, which replaced an amputated right toe, was still attached to the woman’s skeleton when it was found.

“Based on our scientific examinations, our team was able to verify at least four materials used for manufacturing the prosthetic device,” Loprieno-Gnirs said. “We could also determine two phases of refitting of the prosthesis during lifetime and identify signs of longer use.”

The toe is made of some kind of hardwood, and the team has narrowed the possible materials down to two specimens. The belt strap that helped secure the prosthetic to the right foot was surprisingly “robust” and made from plant fibers. They are still researching what type of tools were used to make the prosthetic and assist with the refitting it required.

“There is no other prosthetic device known of this old age displaying the same sophistication. It is a unique piece,” Loprieno-Gnirs said. “However, there are many relics from earlier periods of ancient Egyptian history that show a similar perfection in craftsman skills or sophisticated technology, such as wooden statuettes or the fastening technologies of coffins and boxes. I would not be surprised if a prosthesis was discovered from a context dating to the period of what is called the New Kingdom (1550-1000 BC).”

The entire device has been well-preserved by the constant dry climate characteristic of an Upper Egyptian rock-cut tomb. It was found in a plundered shaft in Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna, Loprieno-Gnirs said. This would’ve been close to the ancient city of Thebes.

That tomb was found to be cut into an older burial chapel where members of the small upper class who were close to the royal family were buried.

“The quality of the prosthetic device gives us an indication of the elite status of its user or her family and that a realistic and aesthetical appeal of the artificial limb was of importance, beside its aspect as a walking aid,” Loprieno-Gnirs said.

The tombs of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna were used heavily during the 15th century BC, but there is evidence that the area was later reused and remodeled during the first millennium BC. Later on, they were converted into dwellings until the early 1900s.

The research team has been studying the structures and objects at the site since 2015. They are using the latest technology to uncover its history and eventually create an archaeological and geological 3-D map. And they want to learn more about the prosthetic device and the woman who used it.

“We are convinced that this combination of expert competences will lead to other fascinating results in our archaeological project,” Loprieno-Gnirs said.