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Replacing your amputated hand with a weapon may seem like the crazy sort of thing you’d find in the horror genre – whether that’s Ash from Evil Dead‘s chainsaw hand, or Merle Dixon in The Walking Dead attaching a knife onto the stump where his hand previously was – but it turns out, it might actually be a real thing from history as well.

In a new paper, “Survival to amputation in pre-antibiotic era: a case study from a Longobard necropolis (6th-8th centuries AD)“, published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences, researchers have investigated the intriguing case of a man’s remains which appear to show that he had a knife attached to his arm, after previously having had his hand amputated.

The man’s skeleton was found in a necropolis in the north of Italy, dating back to around the 6th to 8th centuries CE, in which 164 tombs have been excavated. Analysis found that he was likely in his late 40s when he died, and may have been from Eastern Europe rather than Italy.

When archaeologists excavated the tomb, they found a bronze D-shaped buckle and an iron knife, as well as “non-human organic material” (probably leather), close to the end of the right forearm, where the man’s amputated hand should have been.

Skeleton found with a knife for a hand

Researchers determined that the hand had been removed by a single blow, though they are unsure of whether it was a medical procedure, or from an accident or battle:

There are several reasons why a forearm from this cultural period might be amputated.

One possibility is that the limb was amputated for medical reasons; perhaps the forelimb was broken due to an accidental fall or some other means, resulting in an unhealable fracture. The formation of bone necrosis might have lead to a surgical intervention to remove the dead tissue from the healthy part of the limb.

Still, given the warrior-specific culture of the Longobard people, a loss due to fighting is also possible. Bedini and Bertoldi (2004) found
cranial trauma evidence to suggest that many of Longobard males were involved in warfare activities and had received traumatic injuries as a result of fighting. Longobard shields found at the burial site of Collegno exhibit damage patterns similar to the trauma found on the skulls of Longobard warriors from this period. All of the archaeological evidence supports a scenario specific to war injury.

A third consideration for why the limb was amputated would be loss due to judicial punishment. This form of punishment did occasionally occur among the Longobard people.

The researchers believe the last option is unlikely, because for the man to recover from the amputation in that pre-antibiotic era, he must have been given medical attention and ongoing care – which seems unlikely for a criminal.

Furthermore, the man’s skeleton provided evidence for a prosthesis having been fitted: callouses on the forearm bones, and a spur on the ulna indicated some sort of pressure having been applied.  And his teeth showed wear that was consistent with someone who regularly used their teeth to tighten the straps on a prosthesis.

And finally, while all other male burials at the site containing knives had their arms located at the sides of the body, this man was an exception: his right arm was bent at the elbow, pointing in the direction of the mid-section of the body, with the knife at the end of the forearm. Thus, said the researchers, “we suggest that a prosthesis might have taken the form of a cap with a modified bladed weapon attached to it.”

Link to paper:Survival to amputation in pre-antibiotic era: a case study from a Longobard necropolis (6th-8th centuries AD)