A Trephined Irish Skull

Many thanks to Alex and the Neurophilosopher, who sent in the article I had no luck getting hold of in the previous post on trepanation – the surgical technique of putting a hole in the skull.

The brief article is from the 1923 edition of the anthropology journal Man and describes ninth century brain surgery on a 22-year-old man.

If you’re wondering why it describes the operation as trephination, it’s an alternative word for trepanation. Click on the image for a larger version.

A Trephined Irish Skull
Man, Vol 23, (Nov 1923), p180
Thomas Walmsley

Cennfaelad, a young Irish chief, had his skull fractured by a sword-cut at the Battle of Moyrath AD 637. He was under treatment for a year afterwards at the celebrated school of Tomregan (now in Co. Cavan), where the injured part of his skull and a portion of his brain were removed. He recovered and afterwards became a great scholar and a great jurist. Such is one record of early Irish surgery.

The skull reproduced here (Fig. 1) is that of a young male about twenty-two years of age, which was obtained, along with a number of other skulls, from early Christian (ninth century) graves at Nendrum Monastery in Island Mahee, Strangford Lough. The other skulls, with a few more of the same period from another locality, I hope to describe at a later date, but this one is of sufficient interest to be described separately.

For on the left side, towards the anterior-inferior angle of the parietal bone and just within the temporal line, there is a trephined opening. The diameter of the opening is 8mm, but it originally must have been more, for the edges have healed all round; this can be seen better on the inner surface. Round the opening, on the outside of the skull, for a distance of 3mm, the bone is bevelled as if it had been scraped away. On the inside there is no such bevelling; rather the bone is slightly raised and tuberculated round the original margin of the opening.

There are no marks of injury on the skull, and there is no evidence of disease. The deficiency above the mastoid is due to the falling out of a sutural element.

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