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An Ancient Toe More Precious than Gold

Update Date: Jun 23, 2017 03:57 PM EDT

About 3000 years ago the daughter of an Egyptian priest had an accident. We don't know what happened, but we do know that she lost the big toe on her right foot.

What we do know is what happened next.

A skilled artisan built a prosthetic toe for her. In the morning she would have risen, strapped on her custom-made toe, placed her other toes in the sleeves provided, put on sandals, and walked with dignity, grace, and balance out into the city of Thebes.

Careful examination of the prosthesis using computer tomography and X-ray analysis indicates that the device was refitted many times, perhaps as the women grew older or her foot shape changed.

When she died she was interred (with her artificial toe still strapped to her foot) in the hills near Thebes in the vast necropolis of Sheikh 'Abd el-Qurna.

Today there is a small village at Sheikh 'Abd el-Qurna. Above it, the stark treeless hills are pocketed with thousands of holes, the countless graves of wealthy citizens from dozens of dynasties.  

Once reserved for only the better families, the necropolis reached its zenith about 1500 BCE. As it declined over the centuries, other graves were cut into the hillside, and even into other graves. The result? A labyrinth of tombs, many raided and plundered over the centuries.

Neither the graveyard nor the village at it base vanished. Long after the last body was placed in the last tomb, settlers used the hillside as dwellings and even Christian hermits found it a suitable place to contemplate their church's teachings.

Perhaps the thieves who robbed these graves has no need for a big toe, but after its discovery in 1997, Egyptologists in Cairo and their colleagues at the University of Basel and the University of Zurich jumped at the chance to study such a rare find.

Golden objects they had seen, but never a perfectly crafted toe.

The crafter from ancient Luxor used hardwood to make the toe itself--analysis  may reveal exactly what kind of wood. The strap was made of a very sturdy plant fiber. It too is being examined to determine from what plant it came.

Thebes was in the Luxor region of Egypt, near the resting places of the mighty, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.

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