Archaeologists Discover Centuries-Old Prosthetic Hand in Germany

Used by a man between 30 and 50 years old, the four prosthetic fingers date to between 1450 and 1620

An x-ray of the hand
An X-ray shows where the prosthetic metal fingers attach to the device. Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation

Archaeologists in Germany are investigating the remains of a man with a metal prosthetic hand who lived hundreds of years ago.

Found by pipeline workers, the grave is located near the St. George parish church in Freising, a Bavarian town outside of Munich. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the man was between 30 and 50 years old and died sometime between 1450 and 1620.

“Even for experienced archaeologists, this was a particularly special find: a skeleton in which parts of the fingers of its left hand are missing,” says the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation in a translated statement. The prosthetic was made from iron and non-ferrous metal.

Archaeologists detached the metal prosthetic from the skeleton in order to restore and analyze the device. They concluded that the man had lost his fingers at some point during his lifetime, though a thumb bone still cemented to the prosthetic’s metal shows that the patient was able to keep his most important digit. Unlike other, more complex prosthetics unearthed from the same period, the Freising skeleton’s fingers were simple and did not have mechanical components.

“The hollow prosthetic on the left hand replaced four fingers,” says Walter Irlinger, deputy of the general conservator at the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation, in the statement. “The index, middle, ring and pinky fingers are individually formed out of sheet metal and are immobile. The prosthetic fingers lie slightly curved, parallel to one another.”

Prosthetic hand, side view
A side view of the prosthetic hand Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation

Initial scans revealed that the prosthetic had scraps of fabric and leather stuck to its metal fingers, suggesting that the fingers once had a leather cover and were tied to the patient’s hand using straps. They also found a gauze-like material inside the fingers, which could have functioned as a cushion to protect the man’s skin from contact with the metal.

The skeleton dates to a period of frequent military activity in the area, including the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which likely increased the need for amputations. One of the most famous amputees from that period, Götz von Berlichingen (or “Götz of the Iron Hand”), was a German knight who lost his right hand from a cannon injury at the siege of Landshut in 1504.

Prosthetic technology has come a long way in the past few centuries. Today, the technology used for prosthetic devices includes 3D printing, digital design tools and more. Instead of wood or heavier metals, experts have learned to create prosthetic limbs using lightweight materials like carbon fiber, aluminum, titanium and stainless steel. Advanced prosthetic limbs can be operated through electrical signals sent from the brain to the muscles.

“In the past, prosthetics looked very much like what they were replacing,” said Jacky Finch, a researcher in the KNH Center for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, to Insider’s Dina Spector in 2014. Finch was also the lead author of a 2012 study of two artificial toes from ancient Egypt, some of the earliest known prosthetics. “Nowadays, implants are placed in the sensory system to control nerve action, rather than devices attached to the body by straps or artificially powered.”

How the man lost his hand and how he used the prosthetic remains a mystery, but the discovery underscores the fact that such devices were made and used during this period.

“Doctors at that time were already thinking about how they could make life easier for amputees,” per the monument preservation office’s statement. “In central Europe, there are currently around 50 similar prostheses from the late middle ages to early modern age that are known.”

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