Researchers have discovered the great-great-great-grandfathers of today's tablets - in a shipwreck. Image: Thinkstock
Read aloud On a sunken ship off the coast of Italy, researchers have discovered something that is more valuable to many archaeologists than gold: ancient medicines. They probably belonged to a doctor who traveled by ship from the eastern Mediterranean to the Etruscan city of Populonia in Tuscany around 2, 100 years ago. Now there is the first more detailed analysis of the tablets that have been preserved in a tin can - and that provides valuable clues to the medical knowledge and practices of antiquity. "In archeology, the discovery of old medicines is extremely rare, so we know very little about their chemical composition, " explain Gianna Giachi of the Tuscan Archeology Board in Florence and her colleagues. The discovery of an antique medical equipment in the about 130 BC sunken ship was therefore a real stroke of luck. In the remains of a wooden chest, the researchers found numerous tin cans and wooden vessels, a mortar, a small iron rod and a shell that may have been used during the bloodletting. X-ray examinations of one of the tin cans revealed five round tablets, each about four centimeters wide and one centimeter thick. The researchers have now analyzed samples of these tablets for the first time.

Zinc compounds as active substance

Microscopy, gas chromatography and other modern analytical methods revealed that the tablets consisted largely of two finely powdered zinc compounds. "The beneficial effect of zinc was already known in antiquity, " explain the researchers. For example, Pliny the Elder already reports that this metal works against skin and eye inflammation. Even today, zinc is used in ointments to relieve skin rashes.

In addition, the ancient tablets contained but also remains of beeswax, starch, pine resin and various vegetable oils, as the scientists report. Also charcoal residues and various plant pollen and fibers were found in the ancient preparations. Whether these ingredients have been added for medical benefit at the time is unclear. The resin could, for example, also have been used for the preservation of specifically the oil-containing ingredients, the researchers speculate. The vegetable fibers may have been used to make the tablets more stable and protect them from crumbling. display

Medicine against eye inflammation

But why did the ancient doctor use these unusually large tablets? "The composition and shape of the tablets indicate that they have been used to treat ophthalmia, " report Giachi and her colleagues. Presumably, they were dissolved and then used the liquid to bathe the eyes. Alternatively, the tablets could have been heated and then painted as an ointment.

In ancient times, eye ointments and waters were called "collyrium". As this is derived from the Greek name for a small, round loaf, researchers believe that this could indicate that such remedies were often made and transported in the form of round tablets - much like the shipwreck finds now being analyzed.

Gianna Giachi (Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, Florence) et al .: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1216776110 © - === Nadja Podbregar


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