Veneto, Northern Italy - Longobard Man and Prosthetic Knife Hand


Veneto, Northern Italy - Longobard Man and Prosthetic Knife Hand

Catalog Entry

This artifact contains information that shows the significance of the use of prosthetics to help those with physical disabilities. This artifact which depicts a man with a prosthetic knife hand who was discovered in 1985 by archaeologists shows us how the use of prosthetics, both in premodern and modern society, took many forms to accomplish different purposes. It’s a clear indication that these devices known as prosthetics have been around a lot longer than people generally think them to be.

A prosthetic device is an artificial replacement for a part of the body, most commonly teeth, facial bones, and limbs. Prosthetic devices can be removable, such as legs and arms, but others are permanently implanted and cannot be removed. These include artificial hips and joints. These devices are important because they allow for improved mobility, function, and quality of life for the person that is using them.

The use of these devices goes further back than one would expect. A 3,000-year-old mummy was discovered by archaeologists, and it was apparent that the mummy had a wooden toe which was equipped with straps that could attach to the person's foot. This device was important because it allowed for mobility, stability, and also it allowed them to wear the traditional Egyptian sandals. The Capua-leg, crafted by the ancient Romans and dating to 300BCE, is one of the first known prosthetic legs. During the Middle Ages the terms “peg leg” and “hook hand” were coined because many people lost many legs and hands  (“A Brief History of the Development & Evolution of Prosthetic Limbs”).

​The history of prosthetic devices revolve around many factors including war and the soldiers that fight in them. Some examples include the use of iron hands fashioned for knights and knife hands used by the man that was discovered for this artifact. Prosthetic devices allow for individuals to maintain a quality of life and also a livelihood through the functions of the device created for them, whether it’s increased mobility and stability or a weapon for a soldier that fights. These devices help bridge the gap of disability that they encountered due to a physical trauma or medical problems.

In 1985, archaeologists discovered the man in this artifact in Italy. His remains stood out due to multiple factors. The main reason was the fact that his hand was amputated near the mid forearm, which was uncommon for archaeologists to see. They noticed something even more profound and that was the fact that he had a knife for a prosthetic device. The man is believed to have lived in the 6th and 8th centuries and died in his 40s or 50s. There are many mysteries surrounding the man. It’s believed that he lost his hand in battle due to a blunt force trauma, a common injury for soldiers in his time period. Due to the nature of his injuries he had to adapt to his disability and also the use of his prosthetic device. It was discovered that the tissue surrounding the device had formed a callus, which is a thick layer of skin that usually develops due to friction from the device. The man's teeth showed signs of wear and tear due to him using his teeth to tighten the straps to his forearm. Also his upper arms and shoulders shifted to compensate for the knife on his arm. A knife hand might seem very impractical as a prosthetic device, but it could have been used for multiple reasons. It could have been used for daily tasks, for eating, and for fighting, and all of this was allowed due to the use of prosthetic devices. The use of this device and also enhancements of technology at the time allowed for the man to maintain a daily life and also his livelihood of fighting and work. Even though he had to adjust and go through physical changes with his body, the use of a prosthetic device helped him overcome impairment and disability.

In modern society today many people are affected by physical and medical disabilities that require them to use a prosthetic device. There are 2.1 million people in the USA alone that have experienced limb loss and, of that number, more than 185,000 people have an amputation each year. Each year military personnel alone have 1,500 amputations. Globally there are over 1 million amputations a year, and that number is growing. With that has come many advancements in modern medicine to accommodate those with disabilities (Coughlan).

The turning point for prosthetic devices occurred in the mid-19th century, and that was because of the use of general anaesthetics. This allowed for a great improvement in post-operative outcomes for the patients. The past 60 years have seen great advancement in prosthetic medicine due to technological advancements and also recent wars. Today’s prosthetic devices include myoelectric devices, bionic limbs, modern artificial limbs and also muscle therapies like targeted muscle innervation (Coughlan). These advances allow for the individuals to see and feel an improvement in their quality of life and also go and do the things that they once couldn't do due to the prosthetic devices they receive. Prosthetic medicine is so important for those with disabilities because it helps restore the lives of the individuals
affected by disability and also it helps get rid of the stigma of prosthetic devices and the people with impairments as well.

The use of prosthetic devices has spanned back over the course of time for thousands of years, and with the use of these devices people have been able to adapt to their disabilities and increase their quality of life. Disability as a whole can be very hard to experience and adapt to and this has been experienced by people for a very long time in the pre-modern and also in the modern-era as well. Overcoming this stigma of disability requires will power, understanding, and also sometimes assistive devices like prosthetic devices, and with them we can help bridge the gap created by the stigma against disability. For the man with the knife hand with a disability due to a physical trauma, the use of a prosthetic knife hand helped him adapt to  his disability and helped shape the modern image of disability, and with this image in mind, we can hopefully understand disability more and stop stereotyping those with a disability and become a community of unity and inclusion.


“15 Limb Loss Statistics That May Surprise You.” Access Prosthetics​, 1 Mar. 2019,

“A Brief History of the Development & Evolution of Prosthetic Limbs.” AALOS,28 Jan. 2019,

Coughlan, Charlie. “Prosthetic Medicine: Past, Present and Future.” Bang! Science Magazine, 30 Mar. 2015,

Katz, Brigit. “This Medieval Man Used a Knife as a Prosthetic Limb.” ​Smithsonian Institution, 20 Apr. 2018,

Marvel, Bill. “The History of Prosthetics.”
UNYQ, 2015,

Shiel, Jr., William C. “Definition of Prosthesis.” ​MedicineNet, 27 Dec. 2018,

Catalog Entry Author(s)

Chase Carlson, Student, Fitchburg State University



“Veneto, Northern Italy - Longobard Man and Prosthetic Knife Hand,” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed October 22, 2020,

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