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Take 2 and Call Me after 19 Centuries

An analysis of pills recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Italy reveals them to contain zinc compounds that were probably used as eye medication. Sophie Bushwick reports

Medicinal tablets are nothing new. Doctors have been dispensing pills for thousands of years. And now archaeologists have turned up some of those ancient medicines, which were preserved in a shipwreck for close to two millennia.

The 2nd-century Pozzino wreck was discovered in 1974 off the coast of Italy. It’s cargo included medical equipment like a cupping vessel, iron probe, and tin boxes of supplies. And in one of those boxes, researchers recovered five gray tablets. Now, they’ve analyzed the antique medication. The work is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Gianna Giachi et al., Ingredients of a 2,000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations]

The pills primarily contained zinc compounds, probably the active medicinal ingredients. But researchers also detected starch, pollen, charcoal, fats and linen fibers. Those fibers helped the tablets hold their round, loaf-like shape, which may be the key to the medication's use: the Greek word meaning “small round loaves” also inspired the word collyrium, or eye-wash. The pills were probably either dissolved in liquid or ground into a powder and used to treat eye conditions. Who knows, maybe Hippocrates used them on his pupils.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

 

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