Archaeologists working in southern Germany have found a man with an iron prosthesis on his arm in a grave. The prosthesis likely dates from the second half of the 15th cenetury.
Even for experienced archaeologists, this find is something special: a skeleton that is missing parts of the fingers of its left hand. Traces on the preserved bones indicate a possible amputation. The remains of the hand are in a sophisticated construction made of iron and non-ferrous metal: an iron hand prosthesis from the Middle Ages.
It was discovered during pipeline work in a grave near St George’s Church in Friesing, a town located near Munich. Radiocarbon dating of the skeleton revealed that the prosthesis wearer – a man between 30 and 50 years old – must have died between 1450 and 1620.
There are currently around 50 comparable prostheses known in Central Europe from the Late Middle Ages or Early Modern period. These include both simple, immovable prostheses and those with mechanical components. After being recovered and documented in the restoration workshops of the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD), the rare find from Freising was roughly cleaned, X-rayed, stabilized and examined for remains of leather and textile.
“The hollow hand prosthesis on the left hand added four fingers,” says says Dr. Walter Irlinger, head of the conservation department at the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation. “The index, middle, ring and little fingers are individually formed from sheet metal and are immobile. The finger replicas lie parallel to each other, slightly curved. The prosthesis was probably tied to the stump of the hand with straps.”
How the man lost his hand and what the prosthesis was used for is still a mystery to scientists. It is known that the thumb of the hand was still preserved; a thumb bone was corroded on the inside of the prosthesis. Apparently the construction was covered with leather, and a restorer found folding fabric on the inside of the fingers. Inside the iron hand there is a gauze-like textile that was probably used to pad the stump of the hand.
Many military conflicts in Central Europe occurred during the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period. As a bishop’s see and later an imperial-free corporate state, Freising gained great influence in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the city was the scene of military offensives on several occasions – for example during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This probably led to increased amputations and increased demand for prostheses. The most famous “Iron Hand” was worn by the knight Götz von Berlichingen, who lost his right hand to a cannon shot during the Siege of Landshut in 1504. In contrast to the Freising iron hand, his prosthesis was mobile and technically exceptionally complex.
Top Image: The x-ray shows where the metal fingers attach to the prosthesis. Photo courtesy BLfD