An ancient doctor's surgery unearthed by Italian archaeologists has cast new light on what a trip to the doctor would have been like in Roman times. Far from crude, the medical implements discovered show that doctors, their surgeries and the ailments they treated have changed surprisingly little in 1,800 years.
Sore joints were common, patients were often told to change their diets, and the good doctor of the seaside town of
Rimini even performed house calls.
Archaeologists have spent the past 17 years at the Domus del Chirurgo - House of the Surgeon - painstakingly excavating the site and compiling the world's most detailed portrait of medical treatment in Roman times. Their discoveries go on public display for the first time on Tuesday.
"This is the largest find of surgical instruments anywhere," said Dr Ralph Jackson, the curator of the Romano-British collection at the British Museum and an expert in ancient medicine.
Among the 150 different implements is a rare iron tool used to extract arrowheads from wounds, which suggests the doctor had experience as a military surgeon.
Among the other items uncovered are scalpels, scales, mortars and vases used for the preparation and conservation of medicines.
"It tells us a great deal of how he worked and the range of procedures he undertook because of its completeness. All previous finds have been only partial," Dr Jackson said. "The healer almost certainly concocted anaesthetic preparations of white mandrake, henbane and opium poppies."
Perhaps the most unexpected find was a piece of equipment that would delight a modern podiatrist: a ceramic hot water bottle in the shape of a foot, into which oil or water could be poured when the foot was inserted.
"Joint problems were the single most common complaint in Roman times, and they were probably treated with heat and cold," said Dr Jackson.
The discovery suggests that the doctor used diet as a first approach to treating a disease, then drugs prepared from plants in a pestle and mortar, and finally surgery. That could include anything from pulling teeth - dental forceps were part of his equipment - to opening a patient's fractured skull to remove bone fragments.
"One of the most exciting finds was a lenticular, a small chisel used for opening the skull safely after gouging a channel into it with another instrument," said Dr Jackson.
Healers of 1,800 years ago knew in the case of a fracture it was important to get out the bits of bone. It's also obvious,
rom the bundles of instruments kept ready for rushing to the other side of Rimini at a moment's notice, that he also went out to perform emergency surgery. I am still analysing tiny blades kept to treat everything from an eye to a thigh wound."
The consulting rooms were similar to those in a modern surgery, complete with a table and a high-backed leather chair for the doctor, and an operating room with a bed along one wall. Scratched into the wall was "Eutyches", which is believed to have been the doctor's name.
The house, built in the second century BC and burnt down in about AD260, is one of several discovered beneath Rimini's Piazza Ferrari when a tree was uprooted in 1989. The excavation, funded by the Italian government, has so far cost more than £750,000.
Tools of the trade
The doctor at the Domus del Chirurgo used many implements that would be familiar to GPs today, and a few more unconventional ones. They included:
• Iron forceps used to extract arrowheads
• A ceramic bath in the shape of a foot, into which heated oil or water could be poured when the patient’s foot was inside
• Dental forceps for pulling teeth
• A small chisel, known as a lenticular, used for opening an injured skull to remove bone fragments
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