Pottery fragments found in the chamber dated the find at approximately the 21st or 22nd Egyptian dynasty, or between 1065BC and 740BC.
Researchers found that the embalmed woman, aged between 50 and 55 at death, had lost the big toe on the right foot – probably by amputation. She clearly lost it during life as soft tissue and skin had regrown over the wound.
A wooden prosthetic toe – perfectly shaped to match the lost toe, even to the point of having a nail – had been created and attached to the foot with textile laces.
The regrowth of tissue, allied with definite scuff marks on the base of the wooden toe, seem to indicate a functional role rather than simply an effort by embalmers to make the body appear complete in readiness for the afterlife.
The investigation is reported in the medical journal The Lancet.
Examination of the rest of the body suggests the individual may have suffered from diabetic complications.
The woman had experienced significant hardening of the arteries, not just the large arteries but also the tiny vessels supplying the extremities.
Although they cannot prove this, the researchers believe the toe may have had to be amputated after the blood supply was cut and gangrene set in.
Dr John Taylor, assistant keeper of Egyptian antiquities at The British Museum in London, said that while this was not the only example of a prosthetic toe dating from ancient Egypt, it was one of the most revealing.
He told BBC News Online: “There isn’t any written evidence of them doing this kind of thing, or any visual evidence in paintings or drawings.
“But we know from a number of mummies that they did do this. This one is especially interesting.”
He added: “There is some other evidence that operations – perhaps some trepanning [drilling holes in the skull] – took place, either before or after death.
“But much of Egyptian medicine was by the use of potions, or ointments, often accompanied by the right incantation or ritual.”