Part Two: Problems With Broken Bones
Throughout time and place people have suffered from fractured, or broken, bones; injury is a part of life! The ancient Egyptians and Nubians were no exceptions to this fact: from predynastic times right through to Christian and Medieval periods we have evidence of a variety of injuries to both the body and the skull.
Patterns of fractures to post-cranial remains (that is on bones other than the skull) in different societies of the world, can be compared; the site of the fracture on these bones may often indicate the cause of the injury. For example, research has indicated that fractures to the wrist and to the lower ends of the radius and ulna (the lower arm bones) are relatively common in Britain and America (in modern times), as a result of people accidentally falling onto hard surfaces and using outstretched arms to help themselves and this also seems to be reflected in archaeological material in many ancient cultures. Yet, in ancient Egypt and Nubia we also see a notable number of cases of fractures to the central section of these bones. This might suggest an intentional blow as the forearm is raised to defend against an aggressive attack (fig. 1). Commonly, as an assailant approaches, it is a natural instinct for the victim to raise the lower arm to defend the face – a normal human response often resulting in injury to the mid-forearm. Luckily, such injuries usually heal well, as it is relatively easy to rest the forearm in order to let it heal.
Many years ago, a researcher suggested that, because quite a large number of such central lower arm fractures had been observed on female bodies excavated from Nubian cemeteries, there must have been a high amount of ‘wife-beating’ in these societies!!! There is no evidence for this, it was solely his social interpretation of the biological evidence.
As stated above, fractures to arm bones usually heal very well, with little shortening of the affected bone. This was not always the case, however, with fractures to leg bones. A number of ancient Egyptian cases of fractures to the femur (the upper leg bone) certainly show good healing but there may have been a life-style cost to the person affected! In modern societies broken legs receive hospital traction treatment or plaster-of-Paris support allowing the bone to heal in the correct position. However, in ancient times, the real problem with broken leg bones is that the leg would need to be both splinted (supported) and rested. This may not have been practical in Egypt and Nubia, being largely, active agricultural societies. If the injured person attempted to walk then the weight of the body would displace the fractured bones. The fractured bone could easily heal but the ends of the bones could ‘overshoot’, thereby mending, by means of a callus, in an incorrect position. The possible cost might have been a considerable shortening of the affected leg, perhaps causing an unsteady gait. Such may have been the case for the individual shown in figure 2, an ancient Egyptian adult – or rather only his leg bone, as the rest of the skeleton is not available. If only one of his leg bones was injured then, following the healing process, this leg probably would have been shorter than the other. However, there is always the possibility that both legs were injured in the same traumatic event – but we shall never know the true situation for this particular individual.
In contrast to post-cranial injures there seems to be more ‘universal’ patterns in head injuries; such injuries occur throughout the world, no matter which ancient civilisation we are considering. Apart from the defensive arm fractures noted above, the majority of fractures to post-cranial bones were probably accidental. When we consider head injuries, however, they do seem to be more a result of intentional violence. Types of head injuries reflect the type of weapon used. For example, in a large group of Nubian skulls I studied, the injuries were mostly depressions – some round, some ovoid, others longitudinal (fig. 3).
The injuries on these skulls, from Kerma and dating to the Middle Kingdom, clearly reflect the types of weapons and tools available to that society at that particular period: mallets, throwsticks and maces. There were quite a number of head injuries observed in this population sample – this fact might suggest a quarrelsome group of people or, perhaps, many were involved in war-like activities.
The example shown in figure 3 is an oval-shaped injury probably made by a mace-like weapon, consistent with the type of weapons available to this community at this period of Nubian history (parallel with the Egyptian 12th and 13th dynasties). The injury is to the mid-frontal bone roughly at bregma (the point where the coronal and sagittal sutures intersect). Clearly, the injury has healed during the person’s lifetime – but with what, if any, consequences to his lifestyle? We cannot know!
By contrast, a large group of Egyptian skulls I studied from Giza (catalogued as Gizeh), at the much later period 600 – 300 BC, showed far more serious injuries: gashes, blows and deep penetrating wounds. Of course this is not surprising, as by this period the ancient Egyptians had developed iron technology resulting in some heavy duty weapons: axes, swords and knives – capable of causing quite massive injuries (fig. 4).
In the example shown, a large flap of bone has been ‘lifted’ from the skull on the left frontal bone cutting across the left section of the coronal suture. After being ‘pressed’ down the injury has healed as evidenced by the smooth raised edges; despite good healing, such injuries will not result in the skull achieving the same smooth contours as before the injury. Such an injury is consistent with a sharp, efficient sword blade being swung down onto the head in a slicing action thereby lifting up a section of bone. Here, one might question whether or not the assailant was on horseback – certainly, by this period horses and chariots had been introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos invaders of the 17th dynasty.
Several other skulls, in this particular series of skulls which I examined, also showed similar injuries to that shown in figure 4. Indeed, one male had two large slices of bone lifted off the skull, from the right and left frontal bones. Again, these had healed and, again, leaving behind smooth, raised edges – here one can imagine an upswept sword slicing down on the head in a side-to-side action.
As in most ancient cultures, Egyptian and Nubian head injuries were sustained by more men than women – probably because they were more involved in military action and other potential injury-causing events. However, it must be stressed that I have encountered archaeological examples of females with varying degrees of head injury, both healed and unhealed. Many Egyptian tomb scenes show men engaged in combat, often with unprotected heads (fig. 5). This particular scene is from an early period of Egyptian history and reflects the types of weapons available at that particular time in history.
There are countless examples of battle or conflict scenes from ancient Egyptian contexts, all testifying to the types of action undertaken and the range of weapons available to the combatants.
The majority of head injuries were inflicted to the left side of the head indicating a right-handed face-to-face assailant and possibly reflecting the Egyptian preference for right-handedness; some injuries did affect the top part of the head. My personal research has found injuries to the back and right side of skulls but they seem to be in the minority. Results from the examination of ancient Egyptian and Nubian head injuries do seem to match events in other cultures with regard to: site of injury, side of injury and the gender of the individuals so afflicted.
Broken bones are interesting to study as they offer an insight into ancient societies. At times we may feel that, through such injuries, we get a glimpse of the behaviour and attitudes of the peoples of ancient Egypt and Nubia and obtain information about available weapons.