- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

NORFOLK — A fragment of human skull found in a 400-year-old trash pit at the historic Jamestown settlement shows evidence of the earliest known surgery — and autopsy — in the British Colonies in America, researchers say.

Circular cut marks indicate someone attempted to drill two holes in the skull in a procedure to relieve pressure on the brain. The patient, a European man, died and was autopsied.

Archaeologists found the 4-inch-by-43/4-inch fragment this summer while digging in a bulwark trench on the James Fort site at the settlement, officially known as Historic Jamestowne.

Forensic analysis confirmed researchers’ immediate suspicions that surgery had been performed on the skull.

Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in North America, was founded in 1607 as a business venture.

The skull piece was discarded with trash, such as pottery shards, from no later than about 1610, said Bly Straube, senior curator of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

“It was just being treated, I guess, like medical waste,” she said Wednesday.

Douglas W. Owsley, forensic osteologist at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, and Ashley H. McKeown, forensic anthropologist at the University of Montana, determined that the fragment was part of the occipital bone from the back of the skull.

Mr. Owsley thinks the man was hit in the back of the head by a stone ax, fracturing his skull. That would suggest the blow could have come from an American Indian, Miss Straube said.

Miss Straube also thinks it’s possible that the person simply tripped and fell, knocking his head against a rock. “We can’t tell for sure,” she said.

Researchers know the fragment came from a European man because of its shape and thickness and because it contained traces of lead, Miss Straube said. Eating and drinking from lead-glazed pottery or pewter was a common practice in Europe.

The identities of the man and of his surgeon are not known. The rest of the skeleton has not been found.

The surgeon tried to drill two holes in the skull using a device known as a trepan tool that would remove a plug of bone. It looks like the surgeon made two attempts at one spot and then moved to a second spot, Miss Straube said.

Such surgery was not unusual — it was done in ancient Egypt, for example — “but all early medical manuals talk about how tricky it is,” she said. “They do advise young surgeons to practice on things like the skulls of calves.”

In the Jamestown case, the procedure wasn’t completed, probably because the patient died. Saw marks on the top edge of the bone indicate an autopsy was performed.

Researchers are unaware of earlier surgeries or autopsies performed by American Indians or by Spanish colonists, Miss Straube said.

Archaeologists also have discovered medical tools and objects in other trash pits at the James Fort site. They include a spatula mundani, part of a bullet extractor and pieces of pottery from apothecary jars that probably contained herbs and medicines. The spatula mundani, devised by 17th-century surgeon John Woodall, was used to treat severe constipation.

The tools likely were sent to Jamestown in a surgeon’s chest Woodall outfitted for the expedition.

The skull fragment and the medical objects substantiate historical documents indicating that surgeons, doctors and apothecaries were in Jamestown as early as 1607.

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