2,500-year-old warrior's wound eyed at LIJ

Adelphi University Professor of anthropology Anagnostis Agelarakis and his wife holds a 2500 year old bone fragment of a Greek warrior. (May 20, 2013)

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For the chairman of anthropology at Adelphi University, it was a transporting moment.

"This is a unique find," said Anagnostis Agelarakis to the group of onlookers crowded Monday in an X-ray room on the second floor of Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park. "This is more rare than finding a diamond."

Minutes earlier, radiologist Dr. Helise Coopersmith had taken three X-rays of a bone fragment about 5 inches long from the left forearm of a Greek soldier who lived 2,500 years ago. The soldier had been shot with a bronze arrowhead, remains of which were still in the bone.

The X-rays -- the result of an unusual collaboration between a hospital and an anthropologist -- confirmed Agelarakis' theory that the arrowhead was barbed: the fragment showed a slightly curved end. That hook shape was the reason it had lodged in the bone, there for scientists to see more than two millennia later.

"We now have conclusive evidence," he said.

Agelarakis said that the arrowhead, typical of those found in Athens in 4th century BC, was hooked at the end to cause maximum damage.

Field surgeons, using surprisingly sophisticated methods, would have pulled out most of the arrow, but would have been unable to remove the rest without doing more damage to the arm, the professor said.

The fragment, part of the ulnar bone, and parts of the soldier's skull, on loan from Greece, were discovered in the mid-1980s in a grave in Serres in northern Greece. The grave was dated to the time of Philip the Second, father of Alexander the Great -- himself wounded by such an arrow. Agelarakis, using forensic dating methods on the skull and teeth, said he believed the man was from 58 to 62 years old when he died.

The surgery -- done without anesthesia -- no doubt saved the warrior's life, the professor said.

"He didn't die from the wound," Agelarakis said.

The bone fragment showed no signs of infection and the wound was shallow enough to avoid a major artery, Agelarakis and Coopersmith said. In fact, the bronze arrow itself may have helped stanch infection; bronze acts as a quasi-antibiotic and fungicide.

That means the soldier could have lived for many years -- in pain -- with his injury.

Coopersmith said the injury more than likely would have made it difficult for him to move several fingers or turn his wrist. Holding a cup in that hand would have been difficult, she said.

What surprised her the most, she said, was that, although a little thinned by time, the bone "looked like an ulnar of today."

Agelarakis also brought a photo of the man's reconstructed skull and a drawing rendered by Agelarakis' wife, Argie Agelarakis, who teaches scientific illustration at Adelphi, and one of her students.

Based on meticulous measurements that took months and his age at the time of death, the drawing depicts the profile of an older man with a strong jaw and a somewhat protruding eye under a heavy brow and fringe of hair.

Agelarakis said the research helps to connect the ancient world with the present day.

"He was a disabled vet," he said. "Many times we don't understand the pain and commitment of those places."

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