What a 1,400-year-old corpse tells us about the history of wounded warriors returning to the fight, from ancient Europe to the invasion of Iraq.
The one-armed man was just one of 222 bodies found at an ancient cemetery excavation in Italy. But when bio-archaeologists examined the corpse decades later, they found that the body of this Lombard warrior who lived between 600 and 700 A.D. reveals an ancient precursor to a seemingly modern medical trend: repairing injured warriors to return them to battle.
The Lombard warrior, according to a paper published this summer, lost an arm from medical amputation. Doctors fitted the stump with a prosthetic to replace the arm. More intriguing, the man’s new arm appears to be a long knife fitted to the forearm for use in combat.
Handy With a Knife
Working out the details from a pile of bones takes a combination of forensic science and social studies. Researchers know the burial site is a traditional Lombard cemetery because of the beheaded horse buried with dead greyhounds, a typical animal sacrifice associated with the Lombards.
All the other warriors buried at the ancient site had knives in the graves. So did this individual, but his arm was bent in a weird way and the blade was not at his side. Researchers also found the remains of some organic material, presumed to be leatherwork that kept the blade fixed in place. With this evidence taken together, the bio-archaeologists concluded he was buried with his prosthetic knife hand.
The corpse also shows evidence that the soldier survived the loss of his arm, showing signs of healing and a reduction in bone mass as the man used his injured arm less. But he still used it with the aid of a prosthetic—bone spurs indicate wear and tear over the years.
From this data, modern scientists can tell a lot about the value of this man’s life, considering his injury occurred before the advent of antibiotics. “This highlights a community-level effort to provide an ideal setting for healing to take place,” the researchers say. “This suggests a clean environment and intensive care during the early stages of healing, with the ability to prevent death from blood loss.”
Back to the Front
Despite the extreme effort required to return such a grievously wounded soldier to battle in antiquity, there are even older historic references to equipping soldiers with prosthetics. One of the oldest references is contained within the Rigveda, an Indian poem written 1500 years before the Lombard man lost his arm. In it, a woman (or according to some translators, a horse) named Vishpala receives an iron leg to replace an injured one in order to fight once again.
There’s also other physical evidence of soldiers receiving new limbs. Archeologists have found the Capua Leg (300 B.C.) near Naples. The leather and woodwork is combined with bronze sheeting in a way that clearly resembles the leg armor of Roman soldiers. Those who made weapons also made devices to heal wounds.
The practice has continued in the modern day. An estimated 6,000 amputations occurred during the Vietnam War, and several junior officer survivors not only returned to active duty but had future careers. This includes Gen. Eric Shinseki, who lost part of his foot, and Gen. Frederick Franks, a below-the-knee amputee who commanded the Gulf War coalition’s famed VII Corps.
Afterward, the number of wounded who returned to serve waned. A 1995 study found that only 2.3 percent of U.S. amputee soldiers returned to duty during the 1980s. The research covered injuries from 1980 and 1988 and concluded that continuation on active duty “is a rare event” after amputation. “Only 11 of 469 soldiers remained on active duty after amputation. Of those who returned to duty, most (6 of 11) sustained partial hand amputations, three had partial foot amputations, and two were below-knee amputees.”
But this trend changed again as medical technology improved and frontline fighting after 9/11 increased. Service members injured in Afghanistan and Iraq who required amputations have returned to active duty. To do so, the wounded warrior must face a Medical Evaluation Board that determines whether the soldier meets medical retention standards. Sometimes they refer a service member to a Physical Evaluation Board for more scrutiny.
Medical evaluators who studied injuries between 2001 and 2006 found a different dynamic than the 1980s. There were 395 major limb amputees and of those, 65 returned to active duty. That’s 16.5 percent as compared to the paltry 2.3 percent from the 1980s. But presumably none returned with a knife instead of an arm.