Signs of Brain Surgery Found in Ancient Greek Skull

Greek archaeologists said Tuesday they have unearthed evidence of what they believe was brain surgery performed nearly 1,800 years ago on a young woman — who died during or shortly after the operation.

Although references to such delicate operations abound in ancient writings, discoveries of surgically perforated skulls are uncommon in Greece.

Site excavator Ioannis Graikos said the woman's skeleton was found during a rescue dig last year in Veria, a town some 75 kilometers (46 miles) west of Thessaloniki.

"We interpret the find as a case of complicated surgery which only a trained and specialized doctor could have attempted," Graikos said.

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A bone expert who studied the finds said the skeleton belonged to a woman up to 25 years old who had suffered a severe blow to the crown of her head, Graikos said. The operation was apparently an attempt to save her life.

He said the clearly defined shape of the hole left in the woman's skull was a sign of relatively sophisticated surgery.

"She probably did not survive the operation, as the wound was very large, and there are no signs of healing around the edges," Graikos told The Associated Press.

The discovery in Veria appears to be similar to several others made in other parts of the former Roman Empire, said Simon Mays, an expert on human skeletal remains at English Heritage, a body which advises the British government.

"That kind of operation dates back a long way ... the earliest example dates back about 5,000 years ago in Europe," said Mays, who was not connected to the Greek excavation.

In early examples, cruder holes were made in the skull by slowly scraping the bone away around the edges, but more precise instruments were used in Roman times, he said.

"We know that [brain] surgery was carried out in the Roman empire, and some of the Roman textual sources give quite precise instructions as to how it should be carried out," Mays said.

"This probably fits in with a pattern about what we know [the Romans] could do surgically."

Graikos said the find attested to the social and medical sophistication in Veria, which in the 3rd century A.D. — during the period of Roman rule — was one of Greece's main civic centers, and the capital of a federation of Macedonian cities.

The city boasted large public buildings, artists' workshops and a carefully laid out street network.

"The end to this long period of civic life seems to have been caused by a series of barbarian invasions from the north, shortly after 250 A.D.," Graikos said.

The grave — which contained no other finds apart from the skeleton — was one of several found in two separate cemeteries, dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.

Graikos said the older graves included large underground vaulted structures with up to two separate chambers and ornamental entrances. The Christian-era burials were more simple.

The graves contained gold and bronze jewelry, pottery, small glass bottles and vials used for perfumes and cosmetics, coins and weapons.