History Stories

Since its original discovery in 1985, archaeologists have uncovered some 222 skeletons in a Longobard medieval necropolis in Veneto, Northern Italy. Each one has a grisly story to tell—the woman with two brooches; two greyhounds; a horse without a head. But one in particular continues to leave researchers stumped.

In tomb T US 380, archaeologists found the skeleton of a man in his mid-40s, dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries. He’s missing a hand. More unusually, he’d replaced it with a ingenious—if deadly—prosthesis: a knife.

The knife was held in place with a cap, leather straps and a buckle. Dental analysis shows he tied it on with his teeth.

Photos of the skeletons teeth that show signs of wear, indicating the individual may have used their teeth to attach the knife. (Credit: leana Micarelli et al., 2018)

Photos of the skeletons teeth that show signs of wear, indicating the individual may have used their teeth to attach the knife. (Credit: leana Micarelli et al., 2018)

First pulled from the ground in 1996, this skeleton is the subject of new research published in Journal of Anthropological Sciences. Extensive skeletal and dental analysis led by anthropologist Ileana Micarelli now tells us a little more about this mysterious figure and how he may have lost his hand.

The research suggests that the man’s right forelimb was cleaved off in a single blow. It might have been combat, researchers say, as Longobard males had an established tradition of warfare. (They were famous across the region for their military fearlessness, even in the face of a much larger opposition.) But it seems more likely that this man’s hand was amputated, a risky business in a pre-antibiotic age, perhaps for a medical reason or as punishment for some unknown crime.

Though the details are likely lost to time, the man survived the amputation, healed up and went on to live for some time after it, a fearsome figure with a knife for a hand. It’s still not clear exactly how this man used his prosthesis, though games of rock, paper, scissors would have been a fairly intimidating proposition. It may have simply been for show, as a swashbuckling display of power. He may also have used it in self-defense or for some of the tasks his hand had once done, like eating or picking things up.

Whatever the solution, Micarelli and her colleagues note, this is a remarkable example of a human surviving the loss of a limb in a time without anaesthetic, sterilization, or any of the other modern medical techniques we take for granted today.

But it also says something about the community he lived in and how they cared for disabled individuals. For some time after losing the hand, this man would have needed extensive support and treatment, so he could heal in peace. The Longobards’ medics seemed to have known how to make all of that happen and prevent him from losing too much blood.

“The survival of this Longobard male testifies to community care, family compassion and a high value given to human life,” the researchers conclude in the report. It’s an individual story, but one that tells us far more about the people this man with a knife for a hand spent his life alongside.

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