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Mysteries of Roman medicine and surgery in Lancaster

By Bryan Rhodes

For several years I have organised a ‘Special Study Module’ (SSM) for the Lancaster medical students using a selection of items from the selection of more than 3,000 which form the Lancaster Health and Medical Museum collection.

This year has been a little different, as one of the students chose to base his SSM on a pair of Roman surgical forceps.

The forceps were part of a set of Roman instruments donated to our collection by a local collector. We believe that the instruments, which came in a small bronze quiver, originated in Bulgaria.

The Roman period in Britain stretched over more that three centuries from the late 1st century CE to the early 5th century CE and Lancaster had a large Roman fort and a sizable town or ‘vicus’ nearby.

So what do we know about medical and surgical practice in Roman Lancaster? Sadly no documentary evidence has survived so we have to rely on archaeological evidence and a degree of informed speculation based on a knowledge of Roman medical activity and writing from other places.

For Romans, bathing was an important part of preventative medicine and the student and I had a ‘field trip’ to view the remains of the Roman bathhouse that would have been located just outside the fort in Lancaster. The remnants of the pilae of the hot room or ‘caldarium’ can still be viewed.

We also, thanks to Rachel Roberts of the Lancaster Museums service, viewed a pair of Roman forceps that were unearthed on gravel in the dig at Vicarage Fields in the 1920s.

These have been labelled as ‘surgical forceps’ but with an isolated find such as this there is uncertainty about the Roman use of these forceps. Forceps could be used for surgical procedures but were also used for cosmetics and other activities.

What seems almost certain is that Roman Lancaster, with its large garrison and adjacent vicus, must have had some level of medical and surgical activity taking place.

Two of the forts at Hadrian’s wall, Housesteads and Wallsend, had small hospitals or ‘valetudinaria’ and one of the soldiers with medical training stationed at each one would be designated the ‘medico ordinario’.

With their metalworking technology the Romans developed new surgical instruments including the ‘spoon of Diocles’ described by Aurelius Celsus as a device for removing arrowheads.

There is a renewed interest in the Roman settlement in Lancaster and I look forward to further research on the medical and surgical activities that took place there.

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