TUESDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Archeologists investigating
an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany report they have
stumbled upon a rare find: a tightly closed tin container with
well-preserved medicine dating back to about 140-130 B.C.
A multi-disciplinary team analyzed fragments of the green-gray
tablets to decipher their chemical, mineralogical and botanical
composition. The results offer a peek into the complexity and
sophistication of ancient therapeutics.
"The research highlights the continuity from then until now in the use of some substances for the treatment of human diseases," said archeologist and lead researcher Gianna Giachi, a chemist at the Archeological Heritage of Tuscany, in Florence, Italy. "The research also shows the care that was taken in choosing complex mixtures of products -- olive oil, pine resin, starch -- in order to get the desired therapeutic effect and to help in the preparation and application of medicine."
The medicines and other materials were found together in a tight
space and are thought to have been originally packed in a chest
that seems to have belonged to a physician, said Alain Touwaide,
scientific director of the Institute for the Preservation of
Medical Traditions, in Washington, D.C. Touwaide is a member of the
multi-disciplinary team that analyzed the materials.
The tablets contained an iron oxide, as well as starch, beeswax,
pine resin and a mixture of plant-and-animal-derived lipids, or
fats. Touwaide said botanists on the research team discovered that
the tablets also contained carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild
onion and cabbage -- simple plants that would be found in a
Giachi said that the composition and shape of the tablets
suggest they may have been used to treat the eyes, perhaps as an
eyewash. But Touwaide, who compared findings from the analysis to
what has been understood from ancient texts about medicine, said
the metallic component found in the tablets was evidently used not
just for eyewashes but also to treat wounds.
The discovery, Touwaide said, is evidence of the effectiveness
of some natural medicines that have been used for literally
thousands of years. "This information potentially represents
essentially several centuries of clinical trials," he explained.
"If natural medicine is used for centuries and centuries, it's not
because it doesn't work."
A report on the analysis of the tablets was published in this
week's issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The shipwrecked boat -- the
Relitto del Pozzino-- was found in the Gulf of Baratti in
1974 and first explored eight years later. The analysis of the
tablets was begun about two years ago, Giachi said. The vessel,
about 50 to 60 feet long, was found in an area considered a key
east-west trade route.
In addition to the pills, archeologists found other remnants of
early medicine: a copper bleeding cup, a tin pitcher, 136 boxwood
vials, and tin containers.
The tablets were well preserved for the last 2,000 years because
the cylindrical tin container in which they were stored, called a
pyxis, was hermetically sealed by the natural degradation of the
metal, Giachi said, adding that very few other ancient medicines
have been discovered elsewhere.
"In London, a granular cream was discovered in a small tin canister. It was dated to the second century A.D. and was probably used as moistening or medicinal cream," Giachi said.
Giachi noted that another botanical medicine was found at the
bottom of a dolium -- a large Roman earthenware container -- from
the first century A.D., recovered near Pompeii. Also, in Lyon,
France, cylindrical rods recovered from a second century A.D.
burial site were considered to be eyewashes.
To analyze the material found in the shipwreck, a fragment from
the original tablets was studied with light microscopy and a
scanning electron microscope, Giachi explained. DNA sequencing was
used to analyze the organic elements.
Other experts in the field lauded the discovery as a rare find
that offered valuable clues to the actual types of materials used
in ancient medicine.
"What we know about ancient medicine is largely contained in manuscripts, often corrupt -- copied and recopied and fragmentary," said Michael Sappol, an historian in the history of medicine division of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. "When the manuscripts refer to plants, it's not always evident what they're referring to. There's a lot we don't know."
Dr. Mark Fromer, an ophthalmologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in
New York City, said it makes sense that the medicine that was
discovered on the ship was an eye wash to treat dry eye, a common
condition even today. "It's easy to make: it's saline, which has a
pH [acid balance] close to tears," he explained. "It's fascinating
to realize that the problems that faced men and women thousands of
years ago haven't changed."
Learn more about the history of medicine from the
Museum of Health and Medicine.
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