Medicines

Ancient Shipwreck, Modern Medicine

The Bottom Line

If you haven't cleaned out your medicine cabinet for a while, you might find some old, old medicines hiding there. But they wouldn't be older than the medicines found at the bottom of the sea, near Italy. It's interesting to link ancient medicines with problems that still bother us today - and with modern treatments for the same problems from years past.

The Full Story

If you haven't cleaned out your medicine cabinet for a while, you might find some old, old medicines hiding there. But they wouldn't be older than the medicines found at the bottom of the sea, off the coast of Italy.

A 2,000-year-old shipwreck found in the 1980s contained six tablets in an airtight tin container. Each was round. Some looked like they'd been wrapped in linen. They were found close to other medical instruments, including small vials, an iron probe, and a bronze vessel thought to be used for blood-letting. Archeologists think that a physician had been on board. (Fortunately, bloodletting is no longer part of usual medical practice!)

Those ancient tablets were recently analyzed. Zinc compounds made up most of the tablets. Other ingredients included iron, starch, animal fats, at least 53 kinds of pollen, and pine resin. The researchers consulted ancient sources of medical information. They think these tablets may have been used for an eyewash.

As it happens, zinc continues to be used in some modern eye washes and skin treatments. It's interesting to link these ancient medicines with problems that still bother us today - and with modern treatments for those same problems.

Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Clinical Toxicologist


References

Giachi G, Pellecchi P, Romualdi A, Ribechini E, Lucejko JJ, Colombini MP, Lippi MM. Ingredients of a 2000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations. PNAS. 2013;110(4):1193-1196; published ahead of print January 7, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1216776110.

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