published on 19 March 2012
Recently Vivian Nutton wrote that “… for our knowledge of Greek medicine and its physicians before the late fifth century BC, we are largely at the mercy of a combination of later legend and modern plausible speculation, and neither can be trusted entirely”. This work attempts to remove some of this speculation, and look at what we really know about one aspect of medicine in the Aegean Bronze Age, the practice of surgery, from the actual pathological, archaeological and textual evidence.
It is not that we do not already know a great deal about the material culture and social and economic structure of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations which dominated Crete and the Greek mainland during the second millennium BC, but that only very recently has it been possible to understand something about the diseases and forms of trauma present in the population and how these were treated. This has been painstakingly pieced together from the work of palaeopathologists and an interpretation of the material record. What we do not have, in contrast with evidence from contemporary Late Bronze Age societies of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, is a rich textual record of medical practice. The clay tablets found in the burnt remains of the Mycenaean palaces are essentially storage inventories, and can tell us little about medicine. However, whilst there are no soft-tissue remains, the skeletons, mostly found in funerary contexts, can tell us something about the practice of surgery.
Medical Historian: The Bulletin of the Liverpool Medical History Society, Number 9 (1997)