Friday, May 2, 2014

From Ancient Greece to Modern Medicine: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

Kudos to those of you who guessed this pair of artifacts!  Fair warning to the rest of our readers:  this post discusses medical treatments of the past and present, which might not be for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  It's fascinating, but somewhat gruesome stuff.

Many of you knew that the bowl was a bleeding bowl without the extra artifact.  The second object is called a fleam or scarificator, and it is a bloodletting tool.  The fleam opens out much like a Swiss army knife, with pointed blades in varying sizes to open up the vein and allow the blood to flow.  Once it had been used, the bleeding cup or bowl was placed over the wound to collect the blood.  Bleeding cups and bowls were made of tin, brass, rubber, horn, and glass, although the Latin name - curcurbitula - hints at their origin as gourds (Cucurbita is the genus name of a family of squash).

Bloodletting has been performed as a medical treatment for thousands of years, in part due to the belief in four main bodily humors:  blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.  If these humors became imbalanced, doctors would try to bring them back into balance through bloodletting, purging, and inducing their patients to vomit.  During the middle ages, barbers were also surgeons, and their barber's bowl as shown below could be used for both bloodletting and giving their patients a shave:

Hence the lyric from one of my favorite musicals, Man of La Mancha, where the barber sings:  "If I slip while I am shaving you and cut you to the quick/you can use me as a doctor for I also heal the sick!" 

Researchers have speculated that George Washington's death could be attributed as much to his bloodletting treatments as it could to the original illness.  This link from the Mount Vernon website tells the story of his last few days (in detail that perhaps is not for the squeamish):
Among other, rather medieval-sounding treatments, his doctors bled him repeatedly, reportedly removing around 32 ounces of blood - approximately one-fifth of the blood in an adult's body!  The site does not record what types of bloodletting tools were used.

On Facebook, Penny H. pointed out the fact that leeches were also stored in glass bowls like our mystery artifact.

This was a great observation, as apparently there is still quite a bit of speculation over whether this type of bowl would have been used for bleeding a patient or for holding leeches.  Some research suggests that bloodletting bowls might have looked more like this example below . . .

 . . . while our bowl was probably for leeches as it has an everted lip, where a cloth would be attached to prevent any leeches from escaping.  I found some other terrific images of leech carriers in my research, including this intriguing example which looks like a tiny mailbox:

But the one below might be my favorite, as it is labeled so emphatically!

I can see the virtue in that, as I certainly would not want to mistake my sugar or tea for leeches!!

For those of you who were able to stick out this somewhat icky post to the bitter end, I'll leave you with this link, detailing modern medicinal uses for leeches (although I personally could not bring myself to click on the "what is maggot therapy?" link on their Lots More Information page.  That's a little more information than I really feel I need!!)

Happy weekend to you all!  Hope to see you at the museum for May Day Celebrations tomorrow, and the archaeology lecture on Sunday entitled Archaeology in Our Own Backyard!  See you there!

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