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A regional examination of surgery and fracture treatment in Iron Age and Roman Britain



The study macroscopically examined 270 sexed adults and 190 subadult individuals for evidence of ante mortem fractures and surgical practice in Dorset, during the Iron Age (5th century BC to 1st century AD) and Romano-British period (1st century to the end of the 4th century AD), in order to understand medical treatment in both periods and determine the extent to which these practices changed post conquest (43 AD).

As treatment during these periods is not well understood, a conservative approach to fracture analysis was employed, which attempted to minimise the influence of fracture type and location on results by excluding bones in which fracture deformities may only be corrected by surgery. The study also excluded fractures resulting from bone mineralisation diseases or neoplasms. Skeletal evidence for surgical treatment was identified using funerary, taphonomic and osteological criterion to determine when the surgery took place, and to establish that changes were not caused by post mortem activity.

The analysis of fracture treatment demonstrated that in both periods, adult fractures were well set with few secondary changes; a result also influenced by the stable nature of the fracture types. No evidence for sex-differences in treatment was observed. Evidence for surgery was identified in two Romano-British individuals: an unsuccessful limb amputation, and an embryotomy procedure that was most likely carried out in an attempt to save the mother.

This regional assessment of medical treatment has shown that in both periods, highly skilled practitioners were able to successfully treat a range of fractures and by doing so, minimised the patient's risk of impairment. The study also supplements the very limited archaeological evidence for medical practice and surgery in Iron Age and Roman Britain, and suggests that post conquest, surgical knowledge rapidly increased in association with wider socio-cultural developments in education, pharmacology and sanitation. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.