Byzantine-Era Skeletons Found on Greek Island Show Signs of Complex Surgery



Photo: AMNA

A proto-Byzantine-era skull which was discovered by anthropologists in the Paliokastro area on Thasos island shows signs of complicated surgery, according to a new Athens-Macedonian News Agency (AMNA) report.

The skull, which dates from the early Byzantine period — the fourth to the seventh century AD — bears traces of surgery that are “incredibly complex,” according to researcher Anagnostis Agelarakis, Ph.D., who teaches at Adeplhi University.

The discovery was made by an Adelphi University research team led by Agelarakis. A total of ten skeletons, of four women and six men, were found and studied. They are likely to be persons of high social status, based on the location and architecture of the burial site.

“According to their skeletal-anatomical features, both men and women lived physically demanding lives…The very serious trauma cases sustained by both males and females had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced physician/surgeon with great training in trauma care. We believe it to have been a military physician,” the report says.

In regards to the man’s skull, “even despite a grim prognosis, an extensive effort was given to this surgery for this male. So it’s likely that he was a very important individual to the population at Paliokastro.”

The report also notes that it is likely that the person had an infection that required surgery, while the other man, presumably an archer, appears to have died shortly after or during the doctor’s attempt to save him.

“The surgical operation is the most complex I have ever seen in my 40 years of working with anthropological materials,” Agelarakis said. “It is unbelievable that it was carried out, with the most complicated preparations for the intervention, and then the surgical operation itself which took place, of course, in a pre-antibiotic era.”

The findings can be found in detail in a new book, titled “Eastern Roman Mounted Archers and Extraordinary Medico-Surgical Interventions at Paliokastro in Thasos Island during the ProtoByzantine Period,” by Archaeopress, Access Archaeology.

Anagnostis Agelarakis received his B.A. in Classical Archaeology and European Ethnology from Lund University, Sweden in 1977. He then received a M.S. in Environmental Conservation and Management from Lund Polytechnic Institute in 1980.

He then received a M.Phil. in Anthropology from Columbia University in New York in 1988. He completed his Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology and Archaeology at Columbia University in 1989.

Agelarakis is currently teaching Fieldwork and Laboratory Techniques Archaeology as well as Physical and Forensic Anthropology and Osteology. He has also served as Chair of the Anthropology Department at Adelphi University and has published several books on the subject.

He is also a founder of the Aegean Foundation of Anthropology, New York; a member of Archaeological Society at Athens; a board member of the Archaeology Council, Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens; and serves as vice president of the Mediterranean Archaeological Society, Rethymnon. The archaeologist has earned a number of other honors and distinctions as well.