A first-aid kit found on a 2,000-year-old shipwreck has provided a remarkable insight into the medicines concocted by ancient physicians to cure sailors of dysentery and other ailments.
By Nick Squires in Rome
A wooden chest discovered on board the vessel contained pills made of ground-up vegetables, herbs and plants such as celery, onions, carrots, cabbage, alfalfa and chestnuts – all ingredients referred to in classical medical texts.
The tablets, which were so well sealed that they miraculously survived being under water for more than two millennia, also contain extracts of parsley, nasturtium, radish, yarrow and hibiscus.
They were found in 136 tin-lined wooden vials on a 50ft-long trading ship which was wrecked around 130 BC off the coast of Tuscany. Scientists believe they would have been used to treat gastrointestinal complaints suffered by sailors such as dysentery and diarrhoea.
“It’s a spectacular find. They were very well sealed,” Dr Alain Touwaide, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC, told The Sunday Telegraph. “The plants and vegetables were probably crushed with a mortar and pestle – we could still see the fibres in the tablets. They also contained clay, which even today is used to treat gastrointestinal problems.”
The pills are the oldest known archaeological remains of ancient pharmaceuticals. They would have been taken with a mouthful of wine or water, or may have been dissolved and smeared on the skin to treat inflammation and cuts.
Historians believe the presence of the medicine chest suggests that the ship may have had a doctor on board, or at least someone trained in rudimentary first aid. The chest also contained spatulas, suction cups and a mortar and pestle.
The vessel was transporting amphorae of wine, glassware, ceramics and oil lamps when it sank in 60ft of water between the Italian mainland and the island of Elbe.
“We still don’t know whether it was Roman, Greek or Phoenician, nor do we know whether it was a long distance trading ship operating throughout the Mediterranean or a coastal vessel,” said Dr Touwaide.
He said the discovery showed that medical knowledge contained in ancient Greek texts, and later in the writings of Roman scholars such as Pliny, was being put into practise in the Roman Empire.
The ship was discovered off the port of Piombino in 1974 and the wooden medicine box was found in 1989, but it is only now that scientists have been able to use DNA sequencing technology to analyse the contents of the pills.
The analysis was carried out in conjunction with Italian researchers from the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage in Tuscany.
Gino Fornaciari, a paleo-pathologist from Pisa University, said: “As well as understanding how the ancient Romans treated each other, we are learning more about what illnesses they suffered from.”
The Romans derived much of their medical knowledge from the ancient Greeks and doctors used a range of sophisticated instruments. Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two towns destroyed by Mt Vesuvius in AD79, have found surgical knives, hooks and tweezers as well as bronze rectal speculums, used to conduct examinations, and forceps for delivering babies.