About 3,000 years ago, a woman from Upper Egypt had her right big toe removed. Her anatomical anomaly may have been lost to time, had it not been for the discovery of her mummy in 1997, with a wooden toe still attached to the skeletal foot. Smoothly sculpted and complete with a neatly trimmed toenail, the artificial toe is likely one of the oldest prosthetic devices ever made. It has resided in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum since being excavated from its owner’s tomb near Luxor, but is currently undergoing new study by researchers from the museum, the University of Basel, and the University of Zurich.
Thanks to the team’s use of microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography, we now have new insight into the toe’s functionality, materiality, and fabrication process. Like today’s prostheses, it was acutely tailored to its wearer — it was even refitted for her foot several times, the researchers found. More than a cosmetic accessory, the toe consists of three sections — two of wood, one of leather — and would have helped the woman walk, which attests to the skills of an artisan with intimate knowledge of human physiognomy.