Archaeological finds of ancient medical instruments and apparatus provide material evidence that sheds light on the practice of medicine in antiquity. That evidence is sometimes good enough to allow us to discern the application of surgical procedures and interventions described in contemporary medical texts. Confirmation of that reality is important in its own right but so, also, is the social context for medical practice and that, too, may occasionally be illuminated by archaeological discoveries.
Instruments placed in graves had the best chance of survival because they were taken out of circulation and placed in a secure, often quite well-dated, context below the ground. That space, as well as being less likely than others of being physically disturbed in the ancient past, also often provided a stable micro-environment that might reach an equilibrium inhibiting the processes of decay of the instruments. But while the burial context optimised the chances of survival of instruments in a recognisable condition and also assists our identification of individual instruments by their association with others in the group it provides no evidence for the place where those instruments had been used in life. For that we turn to discoveries on settlement sites which offer the possibility of locating medical apparatus in its actual setting. Such finds are usually individual instruments or random small groups but occasionally there are exceptional discoveries of large or very large ranges of instruments in situ.
Medical Instruments in Late Antiquity: Continuity and Change
British Museum, London
Chair: Roland Wittwer, BBAW
The lecture ist part of the international conference Practical Knowledge and Medical Practice in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures.