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. 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...

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Secrets Of An Ancient Warship’s Ram

Some people think it looks like a beak but this bronze and wooden artifact is actually a weapon formerly located on the front of a warship that sunk some 2300 years ago. The ram, also called a rostrum, was found back in 2008, sitting in about six meters of water off the coast of Sicily, in the awesomely-named “Bay of the Pirates” (or Acqualadrone). Shortly thereafter, scientists carbon-dated the weapon and announced that it must have come from a warship that sunk around 260 B.C.E. This means the boat likely met its destiny during the First Punic War, which Wikipedia tells me was one of three wars fought between the Romans and the Ancient Carthage of North Africa. You can nerd out on the history at www.historyofwar.org: “Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean…” But the point is, this boat and its ram went down in a rather significant series of watery altercations. Now scientists are reporting that they’ve figured out that the wooden base of the ram is pine and that it was waterproofed with pine tar. The team also found “remarkable quantities of sulfur” in the wood, which means two things: First, that many sulfur-eating bacteria have colonized the wood over the past two thousand years and have left their sulfury waste behind. (One of the most common ions floating around in sea water is sulfate, which marine bacteria harvest to use in their metabolism, Stanford’s Patrick Frank, one of the paper’s authors, told Artful Science. Then the bacteria rudely leave their sulfur waste (called hydrogen sulfide) behind on the wood. As an aside, other famous sunken ships, such as the Vasa and the Mary Rose, also have copious amounts of sulfur compounds in their wood courtesy of marine microbes, Frank says.) Second, this ram is in danger of rapid degradation. The leftover hydrogen sulfide can be pretty easily transformed in to corrosive sulfuric acid by iron and copper that has also percolated into the wood. Frank says a solution to this problem could be to remove ozone from the air surrounding the artifact, in order to slow down the problematic production of sulfuric...

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