Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Roman Shipboard Medicine

A Roman shipwreck off the coast of Italy was excavated in this 1990s, yielding a cargo of Rhodian wine amphorae, Syrian glass, and other typically Roman things:

But the most interesting part of the cargo was a sort of medical chest possibly belonging to a physician on board the ship.

Within the kit, the archaeologists found a bleeding cup, a surgery hook and a mortar. They also recovered 136 drug vials made of boxwood and several tin containers carrying circular, flat green tablets -- each about three centimeters wide and half a centimeter thick. Because they were sealed, the pills were completely dry even though they had been laying on the sea floor for millennia.

"We obtained some samples in 2004, but only recently a next generation sequencing technology has allowed us to identify their ingredients," Alain Touwaide, an international authority on medicinal plants of antiquity at the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions in Washington , D.C., told Discovery News.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, who presented the findings last week at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark, was able to analyze DNA fragments in two of the pills.

After comparing the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health, he identified many plants typical of a vegetable garden, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage. Alfalfa, yarrow and the more exotic hibiscus were also part of the mix.

A little disappointing that the height of Roman medicine was carrot and radish pills, but they may at least have contained some vitamins.