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A medieval skeleton found in Austria has a unique appendage  an iron-and-wood prosthetic foot. Researchers say the 6th century remains are the oldest found in Europe with a prosthetic limb.

The skeleton, found in a Frankish Empire-era cemetery, was outfitted with a wooden peg with an iron ring, perhaps covered in leather, which served as an artificial foot.

Artificial appendages discovered in other parts of the world date earlier, including a 2,200-year-old horse hoof-tipped prosthetic leg from China and wooden toes found on an ancient Egyptian mummy. A metal leg discovered in Italy dates back to 300 BC, but was not found in its owner’s body, said Sabine Ladstaetter, director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, who organized the research project.


Researchers don’t know exactly why the foot was amputated in the first place, they write in a paper published in the International Journal of Paleopathology. They hypothesize that it could have been a medical treatment, a punishment, or a wound. Landstaetter suspects it was an accident.

“The bones showed traces of extensive riding,” Ladstaetter said. “That’s very typical for a high social ranked person of that period. Perhaps it happened during some war activities or fighting.”


Austrian Skeleton
A close-up view of the metal ring remains of the prosthetic left foot. Austrian Archaeological Institute

Archaeologists know relatively little about early prosthetic devices, which these researches say is “puzzling” given the likelihood of “accidental, violent and, to a lesser degree, medical amputation” that occurred in early times. But, they note, many prosthetic devices worn by lower-class individuals were made of biodegradable materials, and would not survive thousands of years in the ground.

Even this prosthetic contained such materials — researchers found only two centimeters of charcoal along with the metal ring, indicating that the rest of the foot was made of wood.

This person was buried near hundreds of other bodies, and Ladstaetter said that she would like to follow up this work by excavating those as well.

“We want to do a broad analysis on the living circumstances of the people living in the 6th century AD in the periphery of the Byzantine world,” she said.

This, apparently, was just the first step.