Among the Neolithic bits and pieces that have been unearthed in Chelsea – a sickle and an oak club date back to 3540-3360 BC – is a human skull fragment that underwent a particularly nasty-sounding surgery.
The skull was found on the Chelsea foreshore by Fiona Haughey of the Institute of Archaeology in 2002 and radiocarbon dating placed the skull to between 1750BC and 1610BC, the middle Bronze Age, so the operation took place nearly 4,000 years ago – about 1,000 years before classical Greek and Roman times.
‘Chelsea Man’, as the prehistoric owner of the skull fragment is now known, had an irregular hole in his skull, measuring approximately 1.75ins by 1.25in, and the lack of fractures around the opening ruled out a blow with a blunt instrument.
Instead, the bevelled edge suggested that the man had undergone a primitive operation called trepanation, whereby a piece of flint was used as surgical tool to drill or scrape (scrape!) a hole through his skull – all performed conscious and without anaesthetic, please note – most likely to relieve an affliction such as migraine, or in an attempt to treat mental illness.
Gruesome? Oh yes. A form of the procedure is still practised today to treat patients suffering a build-up of blood around their brains after serious injury.
Miraculously, ‘Chelsea Man’ survived his ‘surgery’ (experts can tell by the bone regrowth around the edges of the hole in the skull), only to die six months later.
The skull fragment is now on display at the Museum of London prehistoric gallery.