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The history of brain surgery is being rewritten after the discovery of a skull which shows that complex operations were performed in Anglo-Saxon England.

A century before the Norman invasion of 1066, a doctor or itinerant healer was delicately removing scraps of skull from a 40-year-old peasant from Yorkshire in northern England who had been hit on the head.

It was such a skillful operation that a large depression on the man's brain was relieved and fractures in the bone healed. According to English Heritage archaeologists, the patient lived for many years after the operation, finally dying of unrelated causes.

His treatment, which also involved lifting a patch of scalp measuring 10 centimetres by 9 centimetres, was known to Greek physicians as trepanning, but had been assumed lost in the West after the fall of Rome and the loss of Alexandria's library.

Nothing like the skull, part of a hoard of 700 skeletons unearthed at the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, has previously been found.

Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at English Heritage's centre for archaeology, said: "This skull predates medieval written accounts of such surgery by at least 100 years. It is a world away from notions that Anglo-Saxon healers were all about spells and potions."

The unknown surgeon, working around the year 960, remodelled healthy bone as well as removing broken splinters. The remaining gap in the skull later closed over with scar tissue.

Work on Wharram Percy's bones has been going on since 1990. Many revisions of conventional history have followed earlier discoveries and analysis of remains.

The English Heritage team hopes to discover why such a complex operation was performed on a peasant.

"Medical skills were largely reserved for the elite, and physicians attracted widespread cynicism because of their fees," Mr Mays said.

"It seems most probable that the operation was performed by an itinerant healer of unusual skill, whose medical acumen was handed down through oral tradition."

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