Ancient Roman remedies: Popping pills for 2000 years
When researchers want to learn about the cosmetics, culinary dishes, elixirs and other concoctions created and consumed by long-lost cultures, they typically try to recreate recipes found in ancient documents and then analyze the products in a lab.
Or researchers go spelunking in museum vessels, hoping to find a residue at the bottom of a pot or on a pottery sherd that can be chemically identified with increasingly sophisticated analyzed technology. Unfortunately, tell-tale residues on dirty dishes have often been destroyed by time, weather and/or hungry microbes.
That’s why the six intact medicinal tablets found in a 2000-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany is an extraordinary find. “It has been very exciting to be in contact with a rare, original, ancient therapeutic product,” says Erika Ribechini, a scientist at the University of Pisa, who just published a paper in PNAS announcing its chemical constituents.
Tablet holder. Courtesy: Erika Ribechini
Here’s an article I wrote (and some others) about her team's analysis of the 1st century BC tablets, which revealed that the ancient Roman pill was heavily laden with zinc, a metal that Ribechini believes was used to cure eye disease, possibly infection or inflammation. (Zinc is present in Neosporin, the topical antibiotic.) Also found in the pill was beeswax, plant pollen and all sorts of plant and animal fats.
One of my favorite parts of the paper was the tangential reference to other medical objects found near the pills amid the Pozzino shipwreck, including an iron probe (oh my) and a bronze cupping vessel.
“The cupping vessel had a peculiar shape that was typical of a medical tool used for bloodletting or as an instrument to apply hot air to soothe aches.” The authors think that a traveling physician was probably on board with his wares.
Given the option of an iron probe, bloodletting or a zinc tablet to cure my ailments, I think I’d pop the pill, thank you very much.
Ancient pill from the 1st century BC. Courtesy: Erika Ribechini.