Who Hugs the Man with a Knife for a Hand?

A photo and drawing of the unearthed warrior "Bob," equipped with his knife hand. (Ileana Micarelli and colleagues, Journal of Anthropological Sciences)

A photo and drawing of the unearthed warrior "Bob," equipped with his knife hand. (Ileana Micarelli and colleagues, Journal of Anthropological Sciences)


Humans are humans, and our humanity remains consistent, throughout time and throughout the world.  This consistency allows us to ask, and answer, some of the questions raised by anthropologists.  Archeology, a subfield of anthropology, involves taking fragmented details of daily life and human activity to build story of living, breathing people and the world they created for themselves. 

The puzzle pieces that archeologists must use lack smooth, interlocking edges, clear boundaries and sometimes cannot even offer a clear and coherent picture.  Archeologists sort through a mass of shards that might not even be from the same time or place. Somehow, they take that jumble of data, combine it with a vast knowledge of human cultures, apply scientific testing techniques and offer us a complex, nuanced and profoundly human story.

My colleague sent me a playful article from the Military Times about a man whose remains were found in Northern Italy.  He appears to have had a knife as a prosthetic hand.  I went on to read the original academic journal article. It detailed the researchers’ work in analyzing the remains of individuals who survived amputation in the pre-antibiotic era. They found their evidence in a late 6th century Lombard necropolis (a large, ancient burial site) which held more than 200 bodies, at a location in northern Italy (Miczarelli et al. 2). 

The authors focus on a Lombard warrior (also known as “Longobard”), known by the coordinates of his burial site (T US 380) who was missing his right hand. Intriguingly, he was buried with what appeared to be a prosthetic hand composed of an iron knife, the remnants of a leather harness and a buckle for straps (p.5).  The authors aimed to prove, using data from the man’s skeletal and dental remains, that he had lived long enough past his injury to potentially use a prosthetic. Living that long past his injury placed T US 380 within the pool of people survived grievous injury without the benefit of antibiotics. 

Like in any good mystery, the anthropological detectives, Micarelli et al., must prove a few facts and build their case through inductive reasoning.  They must show: a) that T US 380’s hand was missing long prior to death, b) that he lived long enough after the injury to potentially need a prosthetic hand and c) that he actually wore a prosthetic, so that the knife and straps were not just a funerary object designed to be buried with him.

How to prove these points? First, the researchers used multiple morphological traits on the man’s skeleton (for example, wear patterns on his bones) to note his age (between 40 and 50 years) and his sex (male) (p. 6).  His age, sex and the culture of his people virtually guarantees that he was a warrior.  Then they examined the site of his injury.  There are several indicators on his bones that prove that this was a long healed, intentional amputation coupled with long-time use of a prosthetic. 

·         The crispness and angle of the cut at the end of his radius and ulna bones indicate that this is an intentional cut. Punitive amputations would show crushing at the end of the bone. 

·         The bones of the injured arm are thinner closer to the site of the injury, and thinner than that of the intact arm.  Loss of bone density makes sense after the injury, and if the arm gets less usage.

·          The ends of the bones have healed, and begun to develop bone spurs, which indicate the likelihood of pressure from a prosthetic worn on a regular basis.

·         The man’s teeth add an entirely other layer of evidence to the argument that he used a prosthetic device: the extreme wear on the teeth on the right side of his mouth indicate that he used his teeth regularly to tighten its leather straps.  

I could not stop thinking about his story, and all of the unanswerable questions that it generated for me.  More than one thousand years ago, the man with the knife for a hand was carefully and respectfully laid to rest with a few hundred of his people.  While he was alive, his community was committed to healing his grievous injury and he lived for years after the loss of his limb.  He was buried with a valuable item (an iron blade), and clearly he wore a prosthetic, implying he required assistance with some of his daily tasks. 

Yet, his bones and teeth, and their relationship to his knife hand raise a host of powerful and unanswerable questions in my mind about his relationships within his community.  Why does a man choose a knife for a hand? Was it his only prosthetic, this powerful symbol of intended or anticipated violence? Was it a statement of his willingness to fight, as a Lombard warrior, no matter when or where? Or did he usually wear a more prosaic tool that would help him accomplish daily tasks or work with his neighbors?

He was shown respect in the manner of his burial, but yet we see evidence of a self-reliance that was physically painful. He wore his teeth down to nubs in order to strap a prosthetic onto his arm.  Why do we see such extensive damage to his teeth? Do we infer that no one was able or willing to help him? Or did he refuse help, even when the roots of his teeth were exposed and his mouth must have been in agony? 

The authors do not conjecture about the social and personal implications of the wear on his teeth.  And maybe all we really need to know is that this man, T US 380, lived and died, and was cared for by his people. There is a complex human story – of the man himself, of his community and their links to each other, of their cultural values – bound up in his bones and his teeth, the manner of his burial, and the artifacts buried with him.  The story of his strength and his survival would have disappeared from history if not for the work of anthropologists.  Anthropological research, regardless of which subfield, helps us to ask, and serves to answer, questions about a man who would otherwise have been lost to time.  These are the types of insights that having a deep understanding of human cultures and behavior, coupled with rigorous scientific analysis, can give us about even the most complex human mysteries.


(Any errors in analysis are mine and mine alone)