Surgical Practices in Ancient Egypt

This research paper will examine the Ancient Egyptians use of surgery in their medical practices. Surgery was considered to be a part of general medicine in ancient Egypt, not a specialty as we consider it today. Almost all of the evidence that exhibits surgical procedures is related to trauma.

There are several bodies of text that illustrate the different types of surgical practices that occurring in ancient Egypt. The Edwin Smith papyrus is an instructional text for treatment of trauma in the upper half of the body. This text and the Ebers papyrus allow for a greater understanding of Ancient Egyptian surgical procedures; what types of aliments elicited the use of surgery to heal or what did not. These medical papyri include many references to “knife treatments” and the many different names that were used for the word knife in surgical procedures. There are also many examples of the surgical tools that were used to complete the operations, including needles that were used to stich the wounds closed after the surgery was completed. The analysis of these texts will be of great importance in learning more about the different types of Egyptians surgical practices.

This paper will on focusing on the several types of surgery that occurred during this time. Many of the types of surgery were listed in the book, Ancient Egyptian Medicine by John F. Nunn, including trephining, tracheostomy, and circumcision. I was surprised to learn that there may have been trephining occurring in ancient Egypt; the evidence is not clear on it occurring. There are no surviving papyri that mention trephining, but there are several examples on skeletons that trephining occurred. Circumcision practices are much more clear, because of the relief on the doorway into the tomb of Akh-ma-hor, who was the vizier of King Teti in the sixth dynasty. This relief shows the process of circumcision in specific detail of the process. Ann Macy Roth analyzed this relief in 1991 and proposed a new interpretation for the scene. She believes that circumcision was not conducted for medical purposes, but during in initiation ceremony into manhood or phyles. Something else that I found shocking is that there is not a single mention of any form of anesthesia for any surgical operations. Only alcohol was used to numb the senses during the procedures.

I would also like to focus on what techniques were used in ancient Egypt that differ from what occurs today. Some of the most common surgeries today did not occur in ancient Egyptian times, such as dental surgeries, eye surgeries and surgeries involving childbirth. I was intrigued to learn that no evidence has been uncovered that shows definitively that surgery was used in dental practices, not even on the pharaohs. The lack of surgery on eyes in this time is interesting, because eyes played such a major part of Egyptian mythology. Only topical medication was applied, and no mention of surgical intervention for any eye maladies has been discovered. This research paper will examine the Ancient Egyptians use of surgery in their medical practices. Surgery was considered to be a part of general medicine in ancient Egypt, not a specialty as we consider it today. Almost all of the evidence that exhibits surgical procedures is related to trauma.

In conclusion, this paper will focus on the various types of surgeries performed in ancient Egypt. It will also look into the other medical procedures that ancient Egyptians used to correct medical ailments that require surgery today.



Nunn, J. F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1996. Print.

Nerlich, Andreas G. “Ancient Egyptian Prothesis of the Big Toe.” The Lancet 356 (2000): JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Leek, F. F. “The Practice of Dentistry in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 53 (1967): JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Sipos, Péter, Hedvig Gyõry, Krisztina Hagymási, Pál Ondrejka, and Anna Blázovics. “Special Wound Healing Methods Used in Ancient Egypt and the Mythological Background.” World Journal of Surgery 28.2 (2004): 211-16: JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

2 thoughts on “Surgical Practices in Ancient Egypt

  1. I think investigating surgery and medicine in ancient Egypt is an interesting paper topic. You bring up quite a few different surgeries, at least one of which leaves clear evidence on the human skeleton- trephination. I would suggest that narrowing your focus to a couple of example procedures or body regions would allow you to go into greater depth. Trephination has a deep history across cultures and a large body of literature that would allow you to extensively describe the skeletal evidence and link it to the worldview of ancient Egyptians, explaining how trephination, as one example of a surgical procedure, might shed light on Egyptians view of the body/head. Secondly, you might not be familiar with the recent trend of “anthropology of the body,” (also use “bodyscapes” in searches.) This perspective views the human body as a demonstrative locus of self-expression. “The textualization of the body’s surface is increasingly viewed as a more or less deliberate social strategy through which embodied identities were shaped, not simply signaled” (Joyce 2005:143). Perhaps your findings on the eye could be applied here. In describing and defining the body and ways in which it was approached as a social/medical object, you are certainly brushing on ongoing conversations in anthropology.

    Check out:
    Hamilakis, Y., Pluciennik, M., & Tarlow, S. (2002). Introduction: Thinking Through the Body. In Y. Hamilakis, M. Pluciennik, & S. Tarlow (Eds.), Thinking through the body : archaeologies of corporeality. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
    Joyce, R. A. (2005). Archaeology of the body. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 34, 139–158.

  2. I was automatically drawn to your proposal when I read the title of this post and continued to be interested throughout. I have always had a personal interest in medical practices among the Ancient Egyptians and I like the approach you have decided to take focusing specifically on the surgical procedures of the time. The topics you have decided to address will create a really thorough dynamic to you paper as well.
    I hope to see you hone in on one medical procedure specifically, which from my understanding would be either circumcision or trephining, and really pick that one apart in terms of the things you have chosen to talk about. I think it would be really interesting to discuss the terms of Ancient Egyptian surgical procedures in regards to one such procedure. Abandoning more of a general overview might keep the content of the paper flowing more fluidly, not to mention, I think it would be more fun to research and write. That is a personal opinion, but with the topic you have chosen, I really think you could put together an engaging paper.
    You are definitely on the track to success for this one, I can’t wait to read it. Like I said, if you discuss procedural techniques and etc. for either trephining or circumcision, the comparisons made between your example and other techniques will be more supported. Good luck!

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