Gold Thread Used to Fix Broken Jaw of Byzantine Warrior in 14th Century

October 19, 2021

NEW YORK – A new study reveals that gold thread was used to treat the fractured jaw of a Byzantine warrior in the 14th century, following the ancient Greek medical treatment of Hippocrates of Kos, Live Science (LS) reported.

“An analysis of the warrior’s lower jaw revealed that it had been badly fractured in a previous incident, but that a talented physician had used a wire — likely gold crafted — to tie his jaw back together until it healed,” LS reported.

“The jaw was shattered into two pieces,” said study author Anagnostis Agelarakis, an anthropology professor in the Department of History at Adelphi University in New York, LS reported, adding that “the discovery of the nearly 650-year-old healed jaw is an amazing find because it shows the accuracy with which ‘the medical professional was able to put the two major fragments of the jaw together.’”

“The medical professional appears to have followed advice laid out by the fifth-century BC Greek physician Hippocrates, who wrote a treatise covering jaw injuries about 1,800 years before the warrior was wounded,” LS reported, noting that “Agelarakis and colleagues discovered the warrior’s skull and lower jaw at Polystylon fort, an archaeological site in Western Thrace, Greece, in 1991.”

“When the warrior was alive in the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, was facing attacks from the Ottomans,” LS reported, adding that “given that the warrior was beheaded, it’s likely that he fought until the Ottomans overcame Polystylon fort.”

“In other words, it appears that ‘the fort did not surrender, but that it must have been taken by force,’ Agelarakis wrote in the study,” LS reported, noting that “as the fort fell, the Ottomans likely captured and then decapitated the warrior; then, an unknown individual likely took the warrior’s head and stealthily buried it, probably without the ‘permission of the subjugators, given that the rest of the body was not recovered.’”

“But the warrior wasn’t given his own grave; his head was interred in the pre-existing grave of a 5-year-old child, who was buried in the center of a 20-plot cemetery at Polystylon fort,” LS reported.

“A broken ceramic vessel, which may have been used to dig the hole for the warrior’s head, was uncovered at the burial, Agelarakis added,” LS reported.

It is unknown if the warrior and the child were family or related in some other way.

“Given that the man’s skull and jaw were found together, his head likely had soft tissues on it when it was buried in the mid-1380s, Agelarakis noted,” LS reported, adding that “the skull showed evidence of a ‘horrendous frontal impact,’ which was inflicted around the time of the man’s death.”

Agelarakis “detailed the unique burial in a study published in 2017 in the journal Byzantina Symmeikta,” LS reported, noting that “however, the study only briefly addressed the warrior’s healed jaw, so Agelarakis investigated that in detail, penning a second, new paper.”

“The cause of the jaw fracture is not clear, but possibilities include a forceful fall while horseback riding; a battle trauma from a thrust spearhead or another sharp, hand-held weapon; or a ballistic projectile fueled by black powder, Agelarakis wrote in the new study, published online in the September issue of the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry,” LS reported.

What is known is that “the warrior died between the ages of 35 and 40 years old, and about 10 years before that, likely in 1373, he experienced the devastating jaw fracture,” LS reported, adding that “an analysis of the teeth on the warrior’s lower jaw revealed a line of dental calculus that built up where a thin wire was threaded, zigzagging around the base of the man’s teeth to hold his jaw together as it healed, Agelarakis said.”

“The wire is long gone, but Agelarakis suspects it was gold,” LS reported, noting that “there was no evidence of a silver alloy, which would have left grayish discoloration, nor were there traces of a patina or greenish cupric acid stains that would have been left by copper or bronze wires, he found.”

“It must have been some kind of gold thread, a gold wire or something like that, as is recommended in the Hippocratic corpus that was compiled in the fifth century BC,” Agelarakis told LS, adding that “gold is soft and pliable but strong and nontoxic, making it a good choice for this type of medical treatment.”

“In one of the dentitions, I saw that the tooth was filed a little bit so that the knot that was tied in the wire would not scratch the cheek,” Agelarakis told LS. “It’s very sophisticated — it’s flabbergasting.”

“If the warrior was still on active duty, it must have been difficult for him to lay low and drink liquid foods while his bandaged jaw healed,” Agelarakis told LS and “it’s unclear if the warrior’s tongue was also wounded in the incident, and whether his speech or pronunciation were affected following treatment.”

“However, if the warrior had a beard or mustache, he could have hidden any disfigurements that persisted after the treatment,” LS reported, pointing out that “this exceptional medical treatment suggests the warrior was a very important person.”

Agelarakis told LS that “he was the military leader, most probably of the fort. Therefore, he was decapitated… by the Ottomans when they took over the fort.”


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