Often, people of the 21st century consider effective medicine to be a recent development. Horrified by tails of leeches, bleeding, amputation and sham tonics, it’s easy to imagine that life in all previous eras was grim and, often, dangerous. But while the medical advances of the last hundred years have dramatically improved the options available to the ill or injured, chemical analysisof ancient Mediterranean pills recovered by archaeologists reveals that early medicine was not all superstition and pointy bits.
The pills were recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany and date to about 130 BCE, according to a report by the US National Library of medicine.
The wreck was first discovered in 1974. Lying in the bottom of the Gulf of Baratti, it was dubbed the Relitto del Pozzino and explored by divers in 1982. Only recently have archaeologists completed in depth analysis of the objects recovered from the ship; the rarest and most prized of which was a sealed tin container containing ancient medical tablets.
The contents of the tin were preserved because it was tightly shut, and the seawater caused the cover to fuse to the container as the tin degraded, effectively creating a hermetic seal.
Analysis carried out on the tablets revealed that they contained a variety of common herbs including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage – many of which are still used in herbal medicine today and have medicinal effects supported by modern research.
The key ingredient, however, was iron oxide. The tablets also contain olive oil and binding agents such as beeswax.
By the shape of the tablets, which was similar to eyewashes recovered from a 2nd century site in France, archaeologists initially presumed them to be used for treating irritated eyes. But based on the iron oxide content, they may have been used in the treatment of wounds. In Asia, herbal powders are still used to staunch bleeding wounds today.
The tin was found tightly packed in a box with other ancient medical supplies, including a bleeding vessel, vials made from boxwood (likely cheaper than glass), and other tins in worse condition. The contents of the box lead archaeologists to believe it belonged to a physician aboard the vessel, but whether he escaped the shipwreck is unknown.
In order to identify the ingredients of the medicine, researchers use chemical analysis as well as DNA sequencing on the organic elements. While not all natural medicines are effective, the discovery is a reminder that many ancient cultures retained certain remedies for a reason – because they worked.
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Samantha Wideman is part of a team of writers and specializes in writing about current news events.