The most prolifically discussed sources for evidence of medical practices come in textual forms. Those of particular importance being the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, and Ebers Papyrus. In all of these papyri, some better preserved and complete than others, one can find the accounts of medical practitioners as they discuss the methods for diagnosis and treatment of various illnesses and injuries. However, often neglected by the more historically based approaches of Egyptology, there is also abundant bioarchaeological and related archaeobotanical evidence for a multitude of medical interventions and prolonged care for the disabled. This research paper will aim to discuss and analyze this archaeobotanical and bioarchaeological evidence, with the historical support of the textual evidence mentioned previously, to gain a better understanding of how medical practices in ancient Egypt evolved over time, spanning from the Old Kingdom into the Late Period.
Medical treatments in ancient Egypt are multifaceted and diverse, covering everything from more external and holistic medical practices to much more invasive surgeries. Of note in the bioarchaeological record, the presence of dental caries and abrasion, often due to small amounts of sand that was not fully removed from the food through processing, became much more abundant beginning in the Old Kingdom regardless of social status. Like many of the treatments for a multitude of ailments, it is believed that most early dental treatments were based on ritualistic or herbal medicine in the Old Kingdom, which does not leave much of a presence bioarchaeologically. However, there is possible evidence for more invasive dental work such as forced dental extraction and possible fake tooth implementation in the more recent bioarchaeological record (Nunn). As exemplified by dental medicine, it is possible to see a movement towards and a rise in the amount of invasive medicinal interventions with the progression of time in the ancient Egyptian archaeological record.
Strong ideological influence over all domains of life throughout ancient Egyptian history is well-established, and this influence certainly holds in the realm of medicine as well. Through textual evidence in both papyri, hieroglyphs, and other visual representations it is known that many medical treatments were accompanied by some form of belief-influenced ritual, as briefly mentioned earlier. (Coppens 128) However, a focus on the simply ritualistic aspects of these practices ignores that the Egyptians seemed to have a keen understanding that injury and illness were also due to physical influences and contamination. Nonetheless, an understanding of them is important since much of the archaeobotanical evidence found is directly linked to these medicinal rituals. There is also evidence for some forms of herb-based pharmacology as methods of treatment.
Although some Egyptologists, archaeologists, and other researches of ancient Egypt believe that the study of medical evolution would be a fruitless effort due to the ideological conservatism of ancient Egyptians, there is much textual evidence to show that this conservatism did not prevent these medical practitioners from adopting and creating new techniques and course of treatment (Ritner 107-110). It is now crucial that this textual evidence be corroborated with the available archaeological evidence and the archaeological evidence be allowed to inform further discussions on Egyptian medicine. With this being the case, this paper will seek to aid the bridging of the gap between the oft discussed historical and textual evidence with the archaeological record.
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