"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Surgical or embalming tools


These bronze and copper objects belong to the category of medical tools or embalming instruments; indeed it is sometimes difficult to specify. We are here in the presence of sharp objects of different types. On the first row, stand four examples of different size of the same tool with blade and sharp foot. They are similar to a doctor’s scalpel, but it is also often identified as embalming knife; reserved for mummification. The fifth is a knife with a long tang, perhaps used to cauterize wounds. At last, at the bottom is a knife endowed with a handle in the form of pliers which could be used by doctors as retractor or separator.

Many written and drawn accounts testify to the ancient tradition of medical practice in Egypt. Several papyruses have thus delivered us remedies to treat such or such disease or infection. Papyrus Edwin Smith, whose texts may date back to the Old Kingdom, illustrates the approach adopted by physicians from examination through diagnosis to treatment. Moreover, the practitioner sometimes recognizes his powerlessness before a disease for which “one cannot say anything”. The method used from observation and description of the symptoms, diagnosis and then the prescription of treatment and of medication, is still followed by physicians today.

In ancient Egypt, surgery was not intrusive, as it was only carried out to treat wounds. The Ebers Papyrus contains, in addition to hundreds of magical formulas and cures, the surgical methods for treating wounds, abscesses, tumours, bone fractures and burns. Yet, despite the mummification practice, anatomical descriptions of the human body remain very brief.

Classical authors have lauded the merits of Egyptian medicine. In particular, the mid-5th century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, evokes in The Histories the highly specialised skills of Egyptian physicians: physicians for the eyes, head, teeth and stomach.

Egyptian medicine, influential and renowned in antiquity, was advanced for its time; but now, it appears to be tinged with magic and superstition. The treatment of a disease went hand in hand with the fight against evil; lucky charms and amulets were often utilized to overcome those ills and regain health.

This approach, which mixes magic with medicine, still exists in Africa and Asia where philosophers, marabouts and shamans mix potions and incantations to ward off evil and to care for the patient. However, these traditional practices using natural herbal remedies to soothe the body and mind should not be completely neglected as they transmit the empirical knowledge acquired during the course of time, thereby often revealing themselves as beneficial to present day analysis.

see also