Two high-status brothers buried in a Bronze Age tomb in Israel were severely ill but apparently had access to rare treatments including trephination, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One by Rachel Kalisher of Brown University, Rhode Island, and colleagues.
Tel Megiddo, located in modern-day Israel’s Jezreel Valley, is a significant archaeological site in the ancient Near East due to its strategic position along the Via Maris, which connected Egypt with Syria-Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Megiddo’s prominence during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (around 1950–1130 BC) is evidenced by its vast size, population, and wealth, as well as the grand architectural structures constructed, including palaces, temples, fortifications, and gates. The Late Bronze Age Amarna Letters, a collection of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its vassals during the 14th century BC, also include Megiddo, further highlighting its significance.
This study focuses on two brothers buried in a tomb beneath an elite residence at Tel Megiddo during the Late Bronze Age (around 1550–450 BC). DNA testing indicates that they are siblings. Both skeletons display evidence of illness, providing insight into how sickness was treated during this era.
Extensive lesions on the bones of both individuals are evidence of chronic, debilitating disease, possibly a condition to which the brothers shared susceptibility. The advanced state of the lesions indicates that, despite the severity of the condition, these individuals survived many years, possibly due to the privileges of wealth and status.
One of the individuals has a 30mm square hole in the frontal bone of the skull. The hole was created through trephination, a surgical procedure used to relieve pressure buildup in the skull and treat various medical disorders. But the lack of bone healing suggests that the individual likely died during or shortly after the surgery, despite the procedure being intended to treat their ailment.
It is notable that the brothers’ tomb was adorned with high-quality food and fine ceramics similar to other nearby high-status tombs. This suggests these individuals were not “othered” nor excluded from burial traditions due to their poor health. This serves as an important case study for continuing investigation into the intersections of status, illness, and treatment in societies through time.
The authors added: “Among the study’s multiple findings, we wish to highlight the special type of cranial trephination, the earliest of its kind in the region. This uncommon procedure was done on an elite individual with both developmental anomalies and infectious disease, which leads us to posit that this operation may have been an intervention to deteriorating health.”
This study provides important insights into how chronic illness was treated during the Late Bronze Age in Israel. Despite suffering from debilitating diseases, the two high-status brothers were buried in a tomb beneath an elite residence and had access to rare medical treatments, including trephination.
The fact that they were given the same respect as other high-status individuals suggests that illness did not necessarily exclude people from their society’s burial traditions.
By examining this unique case, the authors shed light on the complex intersection of status, illness, and treatment in ancient societies. The rare trephination procedure performed on one of the brothers is particularly significant as it provides evidence of intervention for deteriorating health during this time period.