Detail of some of the medical tools excavated from the Jászság burial (image courtesy Eötvös Loránd University)

The grave of a 1st-century CE doctor was recently discovered in the Jászság region of Hungary. Archaeologists from the Budapest-based Eötvös Loránd University, the Jász Museum, and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network announced that the recent excavation of the grave unearthed a skeleton and metal tools. The archaeologists believe the burial was for an itinerant Roman doctor in the early Imperial Period of the Roman Empire. At the feet of the burial were wooden boxes filled with a number of medical tools: pliers, needles, tweezers, scalpels, and drug residues. Near his knees was also a grinding stone that may have been used for crushing and mixing medicinal herbs for medications. The discovery is exciting in that it contributes to our broader knowledge of ancient medical tools. But can it also help us better understand the relationship between ancient doctors and metal artisans? 

Roman physicians, often called a medicus or a medica in Latin, frequently traveled around the Roman Empire. There were also special military physicians, a miles medicus, who could perform surgeries or medical procedures on the battlefield for the military. However, because the concept of large-scale, public hospitals outside of the army camp was not developed until the later Roman Empire during the spread of Christianity, many early imperial physicians traveled with their tools to the houses of their patients in order to perform surgeries.

Samu Levente, a member of the excavation team and scientific assistant at Eötvös Loránd University’s Institute of Archaeology, discusses the excavation method next to the physician and the burial finds. (image courtesy Eötvös Loránd University)

Although the Jászság doctor was male, Roman women also trained as physicians and midwives to perform medical procedures across the Mediterranean and beyond. The epitaph of a 1st-century CE medica (“female doctor”) from Osimo (ancient Ancona) in Italy records the name of one such doctor, named Julia Sabina. Another notes an earlier female doctor from the Italian town of Pesaro named Artemisia. Both Julia and Artemisia were freedwomen; that is, formerly enslaved women who were manumitted by their enslaver. As ancient historian Jane Draycott has noted in her work on Roman medical practice: Prior to 100 CE, over 75% of known Roman physicians were either enslaved or were freedpeople. This is quite a status shift from the prestige often enjoyed by professional doctors today, but noteworthy in showing the import and occupational roles of enslaved persons in antiquity.

In the Jászság burial, the scalpels were found to be made with copper alloy and silver decoration, along with replaceable steel blades. As they exemplify, the creation of medical tools was an art form in antiquity; one that required a skilled smith or metallurgist. A number of medical tool assemblages have been discovered in Pompeii, Roman Spain, Britain, and many other provinces within the Roman Mediterranean. In the Italian city of Rimini, the so-called “House of the Surgeon” was discovered in 1989. The house contains the largest known collection of Roman medical tools ever found in context. 

Samu Levente, a member of the wall painting of Iapyx surgically removing a weapon from the thigh of Aeneas as Venus and Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, watch on, originally from Pompeii and now at the Naples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy (image by Carole Raddato via Flickr)

Artisans who worked in workshops focused on metallurgy and smithing were particularly important to the medical trade in antiquity — and doctors could be quite particular about their tools. The famed physician Galen, working in the 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE, demanded Norican steel for the scalpels he used on the spine. When a fire broke out in the city of Rome in 192 CE, the warehouse where the physician kept his tools and books was lost. He lamented this fact in his treatise “On the Avoidance of Distress,” where he also mentioned that he stored wax molds there to then be given to blacksmiths to forge for him. It is often forgotten that medical professionals worked alongside these smiths to create precise and complex tools that ranged from eye surgery implements to a speculum used for vaginal exams.

Conservation, preservation, and the use of a technique called X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF analysis) on metal objects by museum specialists were and are incredibly important to understanding the composition of metal tools from the past. The Hungarian archaeological team called on the services of Szilvia Döbröntey-David to help examine and restore the metals excavated from the burial recently found in Hungary. An earlier metallurgical analysis of Roman medical instruments done by Katherine E. Jakielski and Michael R. Notis indicated that Roman medical instruments could be made out of a litany of crafted metals, including copper, bronze, brass, silver, and gold. “Roman smiths incorporated multiple types of metals into a single instrument design such as the typical scalpel, which consisted of an iron blade inserted into a bronze handle,” Jakielski and Notis observed in their report. A 4th-century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Roman Egypt also indicates that Roman physicians could request materials such as copper sheeting from metallurgists in order to create their own tools. 

Historians of ancient medicine are already attempting to contextualize and understand this exciting new discovery more fully. While most have focused on how the burial adds to our knowledge of Roman physicians more generally, the toolboxes of these physicians can also emphasize that the field of medicine was — and still is — deeply tied to the art of metallurgy.   

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean.