Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Surgical Knives in Ancient Egypt

The Ebers papyrus recommends the use of cauterisation to combat excessive bleeding. It also recommends treating a lump (which could be an abscess or cyst) and a wound by ‘a cutting treatment.’
It states ‘the knife should be heated in the fire; the bleeding is not great’ (Eb 872). The actions of cutting and cauterising were carried out simultaneously and the knife had to be made of metal, either copper or bronze. The fact that Egyptian copper contained natural deposits of arsenic made it particularly hard and suitable for surgical blades. The papyrus was very specific on when not to use a knife: ‘Serpentine windings’ were not to be touched because the result would be ‘head on the ground’ (Eb 876). We don’t know what serpentine windings are but it has been suggested by some Egyptologists that it is referring to varicose veins.
Petrie's Photographs of Egypt
A joint publication by the Griffith Institute and the Friends of the Petrie Museum
Archive of the Griffith Institute, Oxford

Four bronze knives from Gurob, 18th – 19th Dynasty, PETRIE Museum, University College London, UC 7748.

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