Surgically-marked Skull Fragment

Project details

This fragment from the back of a human skull was not found with a body in a formal grave. Archaeologists discovered it with the colonists’ trash in the dirt filling the western bulwark trench of the fort. It bears the evidence of the earliest known attempt at surgery in British North America.

Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution helped the Jamestown Rediscovery team identify this skull as coming from a European (probably English) male in his 30s or early 40s. Marks and fractures on the bone indicate that the man sustained at least two mortal blows to the head — one coming from a heavy, blunt-edged object low on the head, suggesting that the individual may have been wearing a helmet.

Also visible are two failed attempts at a surgical procedure known as trepanation, when a circular trepanning saw is used to remove plugs of bone to prevent pressure from brain swelling and a buildup of fluid in the cranial cavity. This practice dates back as far as 10,000 years. The Jamestown surgeon, who was probably an apprentice, was unsuccessful because he worked on the thickest part of the skull (the attempts were made at or about the time of death, and since they do not go all the way through the bone, it appears both efforts were aborted). Two saw marks also run along the curved top edge of the bone fragment, suggesting the surgeon tried to do an autopsy after the death of his patient.