The enigmatic burial of a Roman doctor discovered in Hungary

The skeleton of the ancient Roman doctor, discovered in Hungary in September 2022, during its presentation to the public, in Budapest, in April 2023.

A buried Roman doctor with all his equipment, including magnificent scalpels with silver handles and removable blades, forceps and, probably, even medicines. Presented to the public at the end of April, the discovery, made in September 2022 by a team of archaeologists from the Lorand-Eötvös University in Budapest and the Jasz Museum in Jaszberény, is “completely surprising in several respects”explains Levente Samu, who led the excavations in this municipality located 70 kilometers east of the Hungarian capital.

The academic thought indeed to discover only burials of the beginning of the Middle Ages in this typical field of the plain of Hungarian Pannonia where the tomb was unearthed. “But, between two graves from this period, we found the remains of this doctor and his instruments, perfectly intact, when they were only sixty centimeters from the surface, explains Mr. Samu. The instruments had been placed at his feet, probably in wooden boxes which have disappeared. There was no artifact that allowed precise dating, but a carbon-14 analysis conducted in a laboratory in Mannheim [en Allemagne] allowed to determine that the burial dates from the Ier century of our era. This is exceptional ! »

The excavation site, in the municipality of Jaszberény (Hungary), 70 kilometers east of Budapest.

war medicine

Such a find is already extremely rare, but its location adds to the mystery. How could this man, whose age has been estimated between 50 and 60, have died so far from Rome, in what was then a territory “barbarium”the qualifier attributed to spaces located beyond the borders of the Empire? “At that time the Romans were indeed only at Aquincum [l’actuelle Budapest, à la limite est de la province romaine de Pannonie]. The most probable is that he accompanied a movement of the Roman army.believes the Hungarian archaeologist.

With this equipment, this doctor was able to carry out war medicine: amputate, treat wounds or operate on fractures. And the chemical analyzes of drug residues showed that they contained elements that could have served as an antiseptic.

The panoply of silver instruments found in the tomb of the Roman physician.

“The other interpretation is that he was sent from Rome to heal the local Sarmatian elite”, a people then present in the Pannonian plain, says Tivadar Vida, director of the Institute of Archeology at Lorand-Eötvös University. To perfect their hypotheses, the researchers are awaiting the results of DNA analyzes which will make it possible to determine its geographical origin. “Most likely he was not a local, because learning medicine was only possible, at the time, in a large urban center of the Roman Empire”, underlines Mr. Samu. Its silver instruments are also a sign of rare refinement for the region. “The fact that he was buried with them is perhaps a sign of respect”, he says. New excavations must be carried out, in the summer of 2023, in the fields of Jaszberény. They will perhaps make it possible to discover other burials of the same period and to pierce all these mysteries.

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