Scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Salford are carrying out biomechanical tests on an artificial big toe found attached to an Egyptian mummy to see if it qualifies as the world’s earliest functional prosthesis.
If the research proves that the artefact, currently housed in the Cairo Museum, helped its owner to walk, the toe will predate what is currently considered to be the earliest known practical prosthesis – an artificial leg from 300BC.
Jacky Finch, who is carrying out the study at Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, is recruiting volunteers whose right big toe has been lost in order to test an exact replica of the artificial toe.
A model of a second false Egyptian big toe on display in the British Museum will also be tested at the Human Performance Laboratory at nearby University of Salford.
The British Museum artefact – named the Greville Chester Great Toe after the collector who acquired it for the museum in 1881 – is made from cartonnage, a sort of papier maché made using linen, glue and plaster.
It too shows signs of wear, indicating that it may have been worn by its owner in life and not simply attached to the foot during mummification for religious or ritualistic reasons. However, unlike the Cairo specimen, the Greville Chester toe does not bend and so is likely to have been more cosmetic.
‘The Human Performance Laboratory will use technology to test whether the replicas of the artificial toes benefit the wearer and could therefore be deemed functional,’ said Finch.
‘If either one is functional it may be interesting to manufacture it with modern materials and trial it for use on people with missing toes.’