400-Year-Old Prosthetic Hand Reveals Medieval Doctors Had Some Impressive Skills

Archaeologists uncovered the rare find along with the skeleton of its erstwhile owner.

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

Editor and Staff Writer

X-ray image of medieval prosthetic hand

The hand's wearer is thought to have passed away sometime between 1450 and 1620.

Image credit: BLfD

Life was tough for our medieval ancestors. Between weapons, wars, and a general lack of health and safety legislation, serious injuries were not uncommon. Thankfully, medicine was coming on leaps and bounds, and while we still had a lot to learn about curing disease, the doctors of the day had been making inroads in the field of prosthetic limbs. One such prosthesis was recently recovered from an archaeological site in Germany, along with the stunningly well-preserved bones of its former owner.

The skeleton was unearthed during works to lay new pipes in the Bavarian town of Freising, near the parish church of St George. In a press release, the Bavarian State Office for Monument Protection described the find as “something special”, all the more so when it was noted that the remains of the left hand were still inserted into a sophisticated prosthesis.

skeleton of medieval man unearthed in Freising, Bavaria
The skeletal remains of the former owner of the prosthetic hand, as they were discovered at the gravesite near the parish church of St George.
Image credit: Archaeological Office Anzenberger & Leicht

All indications pointed to the fingers having been amputated when the individual was alive, leaving only the thumb intact. The prosthesis was constructed from iron and non-ferrous metal, and would have been covered with leather. Inside, archaeologists found the remains of some gauze-like cloth that would probably have served to cushion the amputation site.

outer view of the prosthetic hand
The prosthesis, viewed from the top.
Image credit: BLfD

"The hollow hand prosthesis on the left hand added four fingers. 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. Presumably the prosthesis was made with straps [to be tied] on the stump of the hand,” explained Dr Walter Irlinger, head of the Bavarian State Office for Monument Protection.

inner view of the prosthetic hand
Inner view of the prosthetic hand.
Image credit: BLfD

Radiocarbon dating and analysis of the remains revealed that they belonged to a man who would have been aged between 30 and 50 years old at the time of his death, sometime between 1450 and 1620. It’s hard to say what accident might have befallen him, but we know that this period was marred by conflict across Central Europe. For example, the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 brought the fighting right into the heart of Freising itself.

All of these hostilities would have meant more amputations and a greater demand for prosthetic technology. Around 50 comparable prostheses have so far been recovered around Europe, including both static and mechanical examples. One of the more famous and complex examples is the “Iron Hand” that was worn by the knight Götz von Berlichingen after losing his right hand to cannon fire.


While the hand recovered in Freising was less mechanically impressive, it’s still an incredible archaeological find, and demonstrates the care that was taken to try to make life after surgery as easy as possible for this particular medieval resident.

[H/T: Heritage Daily]


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  • History of medicine,

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  • prosthetic hand,

  • human remains