Ancient Medical Kit Held Veggie Pills

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The ship carried ceramic vases (amphoras) for wine from Rhodos; glass cups from the Syro-Palestinian area; ceramics possibly from Athens and Pergamon; a pitcher in Cypriot style; and lamps from Asia minor (pictured here).
Courtesy of Enrico Ciabatti

THE GIST

- Green pills and other medical supplies were recovered from a 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck.

- Scientists were also able to compare the ingredients in the pills to ancient medical texts.

- The pills could have been used by sailors as vitamin supplements during long voyages.

Advanced DNA analysis of 2,000-year-old tablets has revealed that vegetable pills may have been part of an ancient travel medical kit, according to a new study.

The kit was recovered from a shipwreck found some 200 meters (656 feet) from one of the most beautiful beaches in Tuscany. The wreck is estimated to date back to 140-120 B.C. and was partly excavated in the 1980s and 1990s by a team of the Archeological Superintendency of Tuscany.

"It wasn't an easy task. The wreck is covered by marine plants and their roots. This makes it hard to excavate it. But our efforts paid off, since we discovered a unique, heterogeneous cargo," underwater archaeologist Enrico Ciabatti told Discovery News.

Made from pinewood, oak and walnut tree, the ship, named "Relitto del Pozzino" after the beach near where it was found, carried ceramic vases (amphoras) for wine from Rhodos; glass cups from the Syro-Palestinian area; ceramics possibly from Athens and Pergamon; a pitcher in Cypriot style; and lamps from Asia minor.

"The cargo made it possible to trace the ship's itinerary. We think that the Roman ship sank because of a mistral storm on its way back from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea after visiting the Syro-Palestinian area, Cyprus and Delos," Ciabatti said.

But the most interesting part of the cargo was a sort of medical chest possibly belonging to a physician on board the ship.

Within the kit, the archaeologists found a bleeding cup, a surgery hook and a mortar. They also recovered 136 drug vials made of boxwood and several tin containers carrying circular, flat green tablets -- each about three centimeters wide and half a centimeter thick. Because they were sealed, the pills were completely dry even though they had been laying on the sea floor for millennia.

"We obtained some samples in 2004, but only recently a next generation sequencing technology has allowed us to identify their ingredients," Alain Touwaide, an international authority on medicinal plants of antiquity at the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions in Washington , D.C., told Discovery News.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, who presented the findings last week at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark, was able to analyze DNA fragments in two of the pills.

After comparing the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health, he identified many plants typical of a vegetable garden, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage. Alfalfa, yarrow and the more exotic hibiscus were also part of the mix.

"The plants match those described in ancient texts such as those by the ancient Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen. However, more work has to be done since we do not have the complete sequence for each plant, but only fragments which could belong to other species as well," Touwaide said.

The researchers have divided the plants in three groups: the more likely, the uncertain and the improbable ones.

"On the basis of the ancient texts, all the plants included in the first group, that of the likely ones, have a common property, which is the treatment of intestinal disorders," Touwaide said.

One hypothesis is the pills were dissolved in water or wine to make a liquid medicine that was ingested. The sailors could have used the pills as a vitamin supplement during the long voyages.

Touwaide stressed that for now that's only hypothesis and has yet to be confirmed. But he added, "Preliminary analysis of these tablets seems to confirm that the ancient doctors used common plants for their treatments."

According to Gianna Giachi, chemist director at the Archeological Superintendency of Tuscany, the research is extremely important.

"For the first time, the new technology has allowed a full investigation of these pills and their use. Personally, I believe they were not ingested, but melted a bit and applied on the skin. We hope to publish the final results by next year," Giachi told Discovery News.

Part of the ship's recovered cargo, including the tin containers and the cylindrical vials of boxwood, is on now display at the Archaeological Museum in Piombino.