Ancient Remedies Found in Shipwreck

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An ancient doctor likely knew the composition of the medicines loaded aboard a doomed ship preparing to sail into the Mediterranean. But it would be another approximately 2,200 years until anyone else learned the ingredients of the six grey pills, which were lost beneath the waves along with the rest of the ship, known as the “Relitto del Pozzino.”

A team of Italian archeologists, chemists and biologists deciphered the chemical clues to the composition of an ancient medicine packed in the cargo of a ship sunk in 18 meters (59 feet) of water off the coast of Tuscany.

The six flat disks were held in a tin container which was probably once held in a larger wooden box that rotted away. Other medical implements of the time were found nearby.

Discovery News reported on an earlier study that discovered the medicine contained a mixture of mineral and plant materials, but not exactly which chemicals.

The most abundant ingredients were zinc compounds. Zinc compounds, called “calmina,” were popular in ancient medicine just as they are today in the form of calamine lotion, or zinc oxide.

The tablets also contained pollen from a variety of insect-pollinated plants, which suggested a bee product was included in the medine. Bees also contributed the wax used in making the pills.

Other ingredients included iron oxide, starch, pine resin, and a mixture of plant and animal lipids, the building blocks of fats.

The researchers deduced that these tablets may have been an eye medicine, since their shape and ingredients are consistent with ancient descriptions of ocular unguents.

The rest of the cargo of the ill-fated ship suggested to the researchers that the vessel may have left from the east and was first equipped in Delos, Greece on its way to Populonia in Etruscan controlled Italy. The ship was first discovered in 1974 and contained glass bowls from what is now Syria and Palestine, wine containers, lamps, and a variety of other goods.

IMAGE: The doctor Japyx heals Aeneas (Naples National Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons)

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