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In Freising, archaeologists have uncovered a man in a grave with an iron prosthesis on his arm. The metal piece reveals the advancements in medicine during the 15th century. Even for experienced archaeologists, this finding is extraordinary: a skeleton missing parts of the fingers on the left hand, indicating possible amputation based on traces on the preserved bones. The remnants of the hand are embedded in a sophisticated construction made of iron and non-ferrous metal—a medieval iron prosthesis.
This discovery occurred during utility work in a grave near St. Georg, the parish church in Freising. Radiocarbon dating of the skeleton indicates that the prosthesis wearer, a man between 30 and 50 years old, likely died between 1450 and 1620. This implies that during that era, doctors were contemplating ways to improve the lives of amputees.
Currently, around 50 comparable prostheses from the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Era are known in Central Europe. These include both simple, immobile prostheses and those with mechanical components. The rare find in Freising was roughly cleaned, X-rayed, stabilized, and examined for remnants of leather and textile in the restoration workshops of the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD).
“The hollow iron prosthesis of the left hand supplemented four fingers. The index, middle, ring, and little fingers are individually shaped from sheet metal and immobile. The finger reconstructions lie slightly curved parallel to each other. Presumably, the prosthesis was tied with straps around the hand stump,” said Dr. Walter Irlinger, Head of the Department of Monument Conservation at the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD).
How the man lost his hand and the purpose of the prosthesis remain a mystery for researchers. It is known that the thumb of the hand was still preserved, with a thumb bone corroded to the inside of the prosthesis. Evidently, the construction was covered with leather; a conservator found folding fabric on the inside of the fingers. A gauze-like textile inside the iron hand likely served as padding for the hand stump.
The late Middle Ages and the early Modern Era in Central Europe witnessed numerous military conflicts. As an episcopal see and later a sovereign state, Freising exerted significant influence during the Middle Ages. However, the city was repeatedly a scene of military offensives, such as during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This likely led to increased amputations and a heightened demand for prosthetics. The most famous “Iron Hand” was worn by Knight Götz von Berlichingen from 1530, who lost his right hand to a cannon shot during the siege of Landshut. In contrast to the Freising Iron Hand, his prosthesis was movable and technically exceptionally complex.