The remains of the middle-aged man were found in a cemetery which belonged to an early medieval church. His left foot had been amputated above the ankle, perhaps after an accident, but against the odds he managed to survive the operation.
He is believed to have died in the mid to late-6th century AD. Archaeologist Franz Glaser said that it is likely he lived for around two years after being fitted with the prosthetic. This would mean the prosthetic is around 1,500 years old, making it the oldest artificial limb found in Europe (older specimens have been found in China and Egypt).
Michaela Binder and colleagues from the Austrian Archaeological Institute (ÖAI) x-rayed and CT scanned the man’s remains and concluded that “the prosthesis may have consisted of a wooden peg reinforced with an iron band on the bottom”. She said that evidence of overused muscles in his hips and spine suggest he may have ridden horseback – and was perhaps a cavalryman who had been injured in battle.
The skeleton was discovered in 2013, but it is only now that the “very, very surprising findings” about the foot have emerged, Sabine Ladstätter from the ÖAI said.
“The infection risk alone would have been extremely high, which shows how good the medical treatment was. And don't forget this was at the edge of the civilised world in the sixth century,” she added.
Despite his disability researchers concluded that he was likely to have enjoyed an elite status within his community. He was buried alongside a sword and ornate brooch, and only people with a high social ranking would have had the privilege of a church funeral.
Hemmaberg, in Carinthia, was a place of early Christian pilgrimage as it had six churches. It was rediscovered in the early 20th century.