The Big Toe Fraud

Dec 17, 2021 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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I woke up the other morning with an intense pain in the joint of my big toe. I couldn’t recall injuring it in any way, but over the next few hours the pain increased and soon my foot was swollen and the joint red and inflamed. Before long I couldn’t bear to put my foot to the ground and when my wife went to stroke it sympathetically, her merest touch was so exquisitely painful that I was moved to use some most unparliamentary language!

Fortunately the doctor was able to fit me in early the following day and after a sleepless night, made bearable only by an aspirin every two hours – by then I was beyond caring about possible liver damage – I hobbled into the surgery. The doctor looked at my foot, felt the heat radiating from the swollen joint and then gave a brisk diagnosis: gout! He scribbled a prescription for some modern wonder drug and here I am, a fortnight later, starting to feel normal again. I can actually walk without limping, a blessing beyond my wildest dreams at the height of the gaony.

Gout is caused by a genetic defect – you see, it was my parents’ fault all along! – which causes the body to fail to excrete purine properly. Over the years the amount of this acid builds up and gradually little needle-like crystals form. For some reason, although they can form in any part of the body, the joint of the big toe is a favourite. And, for some reason, men are favourites: women hardly ever suffer from gout. Needless to say, these crystals make movement of the joint extremely painful and, had it not been for the miracle of modern drugs, there’s no telling what I might have done: at times during the long dark night I fantasised about getting a chisel and removing the offending joint with one swift blow.

I can, therefore, have a good deal of sympathy for the unknown Egyptian who seems to have done exactly that. Back in 1881 the Rev Greville Chester returned from a trip to Egypt where he had acquired a goodly haul of “anitkas”. Some, no doubt, were for his private use as momentoes of his travels, but the rest were intended for the British Museum, for the Rev Chester was an agent of the museum, employed on a freelance basis to hunt for objects of interest.

Among the items brought back to the museum was “a leather artificial toe for the right foot, nail wanting, from a mummy, 5 inches. From Thebes.” Apart from this laconic entry, nothing further is known about the provenance of this object – and even this is either incorrect or incomplete. The object is made of cartonnage – a sort of papier mache made using cloth and papyrus instead of paper – and is rather more than a toe. In fact the toe is attached to a large flap of cartonnage which has two rows of holes (now hidden by a thick coating of paint) that were probably used to attach the prosthesis to a sandal.

There are several points to be noted about this toe. In the first place it quite definitely disposes of those who wish to argue that ancient Egyptians were black. While one might argue that the pictures on tomb walls, which uniformly show the Egyptians as reddish brown in colour, were adhering to an artistic convention, it is inconceivable that a prosthesis would be painted in a colour which did not match its wearer’s skin. This toe is virtually the same colour as the people in the tomb paintings.

One may speculate on the reasons why this artificial toe was necesary. Some have suggested an encounter with a hostile crocodile or an accident such as dropping a block of stone on one’s foot. In my opinion, a crocodile would be most unlkiely to seize a single toe, and mummification was not for the likes of those who had to carry blocks of stone around. Only the relatively well off could afford the lengthy and epensive process of mummification.

It is more likely that the toe was amputated intentionally and a number of causes can be suggested. Diabetics frequently experiene cirulation problems that lead to gangrene in the exremities. Again, this is, in my opinion, unlikely. Not only would such gangrene affect more than a single toe, but recovery is always problematic, even in modern times, and the call for an artificial toe indicates that the person not only recovered enough to walk around, but was still young enough to worry about his – or her – looks.

Another possibility could be some sort of parasite such as the chigger worm, which can lead to horrendous ulceration. My recent experience in mind, however, I plump for gout and look back across the centuries to salute my fellow sufferer. I know just how he felt; I only hope the remedy, drastic as it was, was effective.

The final point to note is the purpose of this toe. Although we may not be aware of it, the fact is that our big toes are a fairly vital part of the walking process. The spring in your step comes from your big toe and without it not only would you run with a noticeable limp, but even when standing still your balance would be less stable. The only question is whether this inflexible artificial toe could have made any difference to our Egyptian’s gait.

It is fairly certain that this was not a cosmetic fancy, put in place during mummification for some ritual reason relating to a desire to pass into the next life with all one’s appendages, for the underneath of the toe is scratched and scored, indicating that it was worn while its owner walked around the gritty streets of Thebes. Nonetheless, cosmetic rather than practical reasons may have been behind its use.

Although skilfully made, the toe is not so good that it would not stand out like a sore – er – thumb on anyone walking around barefoot. If our Egyptain was hoping that his blemish would pass unnotcied by the pretty girls thronging phraroah’s court, he was either monumentally vain or sadly disappointed. More likely, however, he was not barefoot. Of course, if he wore shoes there would have been no need for an artificial toe, for who can tell what lies beneath the smooth leather of a shoe?

Ancient Egyptians, however, wore sandals which, like modern thongs or flip-flops, were held in place by a strap between the big toe and the second toe. (Indeed, I have seen some sandals which consisted of nothing more than a wooden sole and a wooden knob which fitted between the big and second toes. Looked horribly uncomfortable to me, but the gentleman wearing them seemed happy enough.) Needless to say, the absence of a big toe would mean that the sandal would not last three steps before it fell off.

I think, therfore, that this artificial toe was intended to allow our friend to wear sandals and it is possible that, if the straps of the sandals were sufficiently broad, they would cover and disguise the point at which the cartonnage flap ended and his natural foot began. And if so, I can only hope that the effort involved in making and wearing it was adequately recompensed by the admiring whispers among pharaoh’s handmaidens. “Look at poor old Ra-hotep. Why, you would hardly know that he has an artificial toe!”

March 2003

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