Gold threading was used to fix the fractured jaw of a 14th-century Byzantine warrior about two decades before he was decapitated by Ottoman army 650 years ago

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  • Archaeologists found a skull in Thrace at the site of a Byzantine fortress in 1991
  • The jaws held gold threads holding the two fragmented pieces together, which was recently identified in a new analysis of the skull
  • The level of care that shows the warrior was an elite member of the army

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Archaeologists in Greece say a 14th-century Byzantine warrior saved a broken jaw by closing it with wire – most likely with gold.

The skull of the man, first uncovered in 1991, was buried in the tomb of a 5-year-old child in a cemetery inside a fortress in ancient Thrace after the warrior beheaded by the Ottoman army.

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But recently researchers observed that a decade before he died, the soldier’s jaw was broken in two places, then carefully reset by a knowledgeable medical professional.

The team believes the skilled doctor was following advice on jaw injuries prescribed by the iconic Greek physician Hippocrates about 2,000 years ago.

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Such a level of care was rare at the time, but this approach was recommended by Hippocrates as early as 1800 years ago.

The jaws of a 14th-century Byzantine warrior discovered in Thrace indicate that it was fractured and then wired with gold thread while it was healing. Such a high level of care was rare at the time, but the approach was recommended by Hippocrates 1800 years ago

The skull and lower jaw of the unknown warrior were discovered 30 years ago at the site of Fortress Polystylon, a Byzantine citadel built on the remains of the ancient Greek city of Abdera near the Aegean, in what is now western Thrace.

He was ‘carefully interred’ with the girl’s skeleton, according to a new report published in the journal Mediterranean Archeology and Archaeology:.

Both sets of relics were found in a cistern, or stone coffin, in the middle of a 20-plot cemetery in the fort, which had been covered with earth for centuries.

Nearby ‘large porcelain pieces’ may have come from the cup used for digging the grave.

The warrior was probably 35 or 40 when he was beheaded when attacked by the Ottomans.  Her mutilated head was buried with the remains of a five-year-old girl, possibly in secret.

The warrior was probably 35 or 40 when he was beheaded when attacked by the Ottomans. Her mutilated head was buried with the remains of a five-year-old girl, possibly in secret.

It is not clear whether the warrior and his young grave mates were related to or knew each other.

Adelphi University archaeologist Anagnostis Agelarakis, who led the excavation, logged the remains back in the 90s, but only recently saw the warrior’s healed mandible, a rarity in that era.

Agelarakis said, ‘The jaw was broken in two live science. He praised the skill and knowledge that ‘allowed the medical professional … to put the two major pieces of the jaw together.’

Such a wound would have made eating or drinking incredibly difficult and could have resulted in the victim’s starvation death.

An illustration of the head of a Byzantine warrior with a severed head

An illustration of the head of a Byzantine warrior with a severed head

According to Agelarakis, the level of care the man received showed that he was a VIP.

‘He was the military leader, probably the most of the fort,’ he told Live Science. This also explains why the Ottomans killed them when they captured the citadel.

He still had a slightly misaligned jaw, but Agelarakis put it because of medical complications or possibly the warrior’s inability to remain motionless, but rather a lack of skill on the surgeon’s part.

‘Indeed, had the physician-aligned jaw fragments not been subjected to follow-up adjustment treatment, the fractured jaw component identified as the base triangle would not have been set to close as a fuse. [as they did],’ the authors wrote in their paper.

While the actual metal used to close his jaws is long gone, Agelrakis is firmly convinced that it was gold: it needed to be something strong but malleable and non-toxic, and the jaws had silver or silver. There was a lack of the usual brown discoloration seen with the green patina associated with the staining of copper wires.

A tooth was pressed down so that the knot tying the wire would not scratch his cheek.

“It’s very sophisticated,” Agelakis told Live Science. ‘It’s astonishing.

Anagnostis Agelaraki and archaeologists first excavated the cemetery in the Polystyrene Fortress in 1991.  A unique injury was detected recently on the mandible of the soldier.

Anagnostis Agelaraki and archaeologists first excavated the cemetery in the Polystyrene Fortress in 1991. Unique injury recently discovered on soldier’s mandible

Based on the tartar buildup on his teeth where the wire was threaded, Agelakis believes the soldier suffered the injury nearly a decade before his violent death at the age of 35-40.

How he fractured his jaw is unclear, but Agelarakis suggested that possibilities included a fall from a horse or a wound from a spear or projectile.

The authors state that their discovery of the treatment was ‘reflected on the continued implementation of an interventional approach recommended by the texts of Hippocrates 1,800 years ago’.

It also provides ‘a glimpse of the human condition during the greatest upheaval of the last 100 years’ [Byzantine] Empire,’ he wrote.

Both sets of relics were found in a cistern, or stone coffin, in the middle of a 20-plot cemetery in the fort, which had been covered with earth for centuries.

Both sets of relics were found in a cistern, or stone coffin, in the middle of a 20-plot cemetery in the fort, which had been covered with earth for centuries.

The death of the warrior was likely in the 1380s, when the fortress was sacked by invading Ottomans.

His skull was also crushed, along with other blunt-force trauma caused by ‘terrible shape’ fractures on the upper part of his face and ‘strikes of various types of weapons’.

Noting that his head was placed in someone else’s grave, without the rest of his body, Agelakis theorized that his burial was done quickly without the Turks’ awareness.

According to the study, their ‘terrible suffering and beheading’ suggests that the fort was not surrendered, ‘but it must have been taken by force’.

This latest discovery provides ‘testimonials on the defense of the fort under siege, the heroic resistance of the invaders and the inhuman consequences at the hands of the conquerors’.

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