The Smart Magazine About Medical Technology Innovations

#7 - Sustainable Health Systems

Mummies and Surgery: The Story of Ancient Egyptian Obsidian Scalpels

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Egyptologists believe that embalmers might have used knife and scalpel blades made of a very particular raw material— obsidian. As Salima Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told MedicalExpo, “Obsidian was, according to Herodotus, used to make the embalming cut. Although obsidian, either from Ethiopia or Anatolia, has been found in Egypt, there are few examples of what is clearly an embalming knife made out of it. Certainly, other stones such as flint could also have been used for this purpose.”

Obsidian is at once smooth and sharp. Blades made out of this black, hardened lava are hundreds of times sharper than those made of steel and can make a cut a fraction the thickness of today’s scalpels.

A SCARCE MATERIAL

ME#7_obsidianThe reason becomes clear under the electron microscope. Whereas a steel cutting edge is ragged, the obsidian scalpel is smooth at nanometer resolution. Medical practitioners must have appreciated this quality thousands of years ago, when obsidian was used for weapons, knives and other sharp cutting instruments.

However, the raw material was scarce in 3500 BCE. “It is most likely that not every embalmer in every village had an obsidian scalpel at his disposal,“ stated Robert Kuhn, Egyptologist at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. “At those times obsidian was an extraordinarily expensive raw material that needed to be imported.”

Kuhn confirmed that there is currently no real evidence that obsidian blades were used in the mummification procedure. But the likelihood remains.

ONE DRAWBACK: OBSIDIAN SCALPELS BREAK EASILY

Despite the advantages of cutting with obsidian, such as fast healing with less scarring, obsidian scalpels are the exception in modern operating rooms. They are used primarily by “think-outside-of-the-box” or alternative surgeons and some companies are still selling them.

Even if their extraordinarily thin, sharp blades make them ideal for ophthalmologic, cosmetic and coronary surgery, or where steel cannot be used because of an allergy to metal blades, their use remains limited. Obsidian is rather easily broken, even if handled with utmost caution. This constitutes a real danger if it happens during surgery.

Ancient Egyptians might well have accepted this risk when preparing their mummies for whatever might arrive in the hereafter.


About the Author

Kristina Müller is a freelance journalist writing mainly about nautical and medical issues.

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