fun stuff, journal

The archaeology of poisons and medicine

Greetings from a hospital bed in a friendly neighbourhood!

I rocked up to work on Saturday morning with what I thought was bad gas. I thought I would push through the day but it got difficult to stand and talk. Suspecting something was wrong, I left and checked myself into hospital. A few hours of worrying I would pass air in a busy waiting room, four different COVID tests and one blood test later, the doctors confirmed were extremely sure I had appendicitis.

Long story short, I had a laparoscopy (keyhole surgery) and am now minus one vestigial organ, dosed up on a good number of painkillers, and feel great (for the time being, as the drugs are working).

Image credit:

In the spirit of what’s been happening, I got to looking around about anaesthesia, then poisons and drugs, and ancient medical procedures. So here is a post on them! Warning: Skip if you are squeamish.

• The word “toxic” comes from the Greek word toxon, meaning “bow”. The association likely comes from hunting, and archaeologists think that Paleolithic humans poisoned the tips of their spears to hunt, but to prove this happened is tricky. The detection of these poisons is an area of archaeological research.

• According to this article on the history of anaesthesia, the ancient Italians would put a wooden bowl over a patient’s head and knock them until they were unconscious so they could carry on with surgery. Certainly seems a lot cheaper than hiring an anaesthetist.

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• Once upon a time, people tried to get around feeling the pain of doctors cutting them open with opium and alcohol.

• The first successful application of anaesthesia as we recognise it today was done by a dentist, William Morton, in 1846. What a dentist was doing knocking someone out to remove their neck tumour I am not sure, but hooray for Dr. Morton! (?)

Trepanation is the process by which folks as far back as the Neolithic period literally bore a hole in people’s skulls to get rid of something bad in the person’s head. The procedure was possibly superstitious in origin than truly medical (eg to get rid of bad spirits). Trepanation is the oldest surgical procedure discovered by archaeology.

Hieronymous Bosch’s The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, c.1488–1516

Couching is the earliest method of getting rid of cataracts. A cataract is the clouding of the crystalline lens in the eye (almost universal in humans as we age), and couching is when you literally poke them with a needle so the opaque lens falls into the eye. It was documented practice as early as 800BCE in ancient India.

Sadly, couching is still practiced in developing countries, and trepanation in … developed* … parts of the world.

How are you this week? Know any poisons/medical related trivia? Do you still have your appendix? 

*See first comment on this post by Ashley L. Peterson.


24 thoughts on “The archaeology of poisons and medicine

  1. Oh, no! So glad to hear you’re okay and thankful you decided to head to the hospital. Here’s wishing you the speediest of recoveries. Bosch had some incredibly interesting paintings, that’s for sure. I hadn’t seen this particular one until now. As for trepanation, I have some experience with this…sort of. When I was three years old, I I got hold of some scissors and cut a gaping hole in my bangs. When my mom saw it, she freaked and asked me why in the world would I cut a hole in my bangs. I innocently replied, “To let the monsters out…:” Like, duh, Mom! 😀 So, not quite trepanation, but close enough (and my scissors skill increase by +1 in the process). Get better soon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Goodness! I hope you are on your feet and feeling better soon. As for those early barbers, “Up until the 19th century barbers were generally referred to as barber-surgeons, and they were called upon to perform a wide variety of tasks. They treated and extracted teeth, branded slaves, created ritual tattoos or scars, cut out gallstones and hangnails, set fractures, gave enemas, and lanced abscesses.” And from your reading also excised tumors – and in their free time discovered anesthesia!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Val 🤗

      I didn’t know all that! Only that barbers have the blue-red spiral outside their doors from working with surgeons. 💈 What a wide and versatile range of skills!


  3. I let my appendix burst when I self diagnosed food poisoning at age 57. The hospital staff was unamused at my stupidity and rejected my conciliatory offering of my ruptured appendix to the organ donor program.


  4. You might want to look into why we humans have an appendix at all! I still have mine but I know a lot of people like you who have had theirs removed. Every time I look to confirm my prior understanding that the appendix doesn’t have much of a function these days so I wonder if it ever did!

    Glad yours was removed before it did any major damage and that your recovery has been an easy one.


  5. Hope you are recovering now .
    Two Samuel Pepys medical accounts are not for the squeamish – his own bladder stone removal – no anaesthetic, and later, his account of trepanation for Charles II’s cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine – cousin of Charles II.

    Impossible to find any period of history Romantic – unless, as in the hilarious Lost in Austen, equipped with 21st C oaracetamol…..

    Past three weeks have involved frequent journeys to a city 70 miles away – family member in trouble, not me, one emergency op later, in worse pain, needing a second op, then days on morphine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gosh that is a bit of drama! Hope everything turns out best case scenario.

      Thank you for sharing these medical facts! If bladder stone removal without anaesthetic could make someone faint beforehand… problem solved..?!


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