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Ancient Roman remedies: Popping pills for 2000 years

Tablet holder. Courtesy: Erika Ribechini

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.

Ancient pill from the 1st century BC. 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.

3 Comments

  • Jan 9th 201314:01
    by Carmen Drahl

    Reply

    I’m with you on picking the pill. What’s funny to me is how much the other stuff in the pill mirrors present-day excipients in tablets. Fatty acids, cornstarch, gelatin, all get a mention in this piece from Steve Ritter http://pubs.acs.org/cen/whatstuff/86/8601sci3.html
    Everything old is new again I suppose.

  • Jan 9th 201315:01
    by Sarah Everts

    Reply

    Indeed! Very true.
    Another old-is-new nugget: The researchers analyzing the ancient pills suspect the pollen was an accidental ingredient via the beeswax. Turns out modern day forensic scientists look for accidental pollen tidbits in counterfeit or fake pharmaceuticals in order to get a sense for where the counterfeiting was done… https://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/88/8801sci1.html

  • [...] A doctor’s bag from a 2,000 year old shipwreck sheds light on Roman pharmacology [...]

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