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Minoan surgery

The fertile, mountainous island of Crete, which separates the Aegean from the Mediterranean Sea, developed a sophisticated civilisation from about 2500 BCE. This has been named *Minoan, after Minos, the legendary king of Knossos, the island's most important city. Minoans made weapons and tools of copper and then bronze, built palaces for their rulers, and developed writing. They also established colonies on other Aegean islands such as Rhodes, Melos, Ceos, and Thera, as well as the mainland where *Mycenae became an important centre. Trade between Crete and Egypt flourished. There is evidence from Mycenae that trephination was practised. This involved removing a small section of skull bone (the Minoans scraped it away) which presumably encouraged the escape of tormenting demons. Re-growth of bone shows that some people survived this operation.

Trephined skulls from as early as 5000 BCE have also been found in France, South America, and the Pacific. By the Late Bronze Age, the Minoans had developed effective methods of immobilising fractures. Fractures of the humerus (forearm) seem to have been most common. Skeletal remains from Crete show that broken jaws had been healed and teeth extracted although tooth extraction was practised to a greater extent in the towns than in rural areas. A set of bronze surgical instruments, dated at 1450 BCE, was discovered in a Mycenaean chamber tomb and probably belonged to a palace physician. The set contained drills, rasps, scalpels, a scoop or spoon, denticulated forceps 34.5 cms long, and grinding stones for making medicines.


The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL

Copyright Dr Carole Reeves