Even though we know thousand of ancient pharmacological and cosmetic recipes from the Greek and Latin literatures, archaeological discoveries of actual drugs, especially in good conditions, to be characterized from a chemical and botanical point of view, are very rare.
What ingredients did our ancestors use for the preparation of their drugs?
In 1974 a discovery came to help giving an answer to that question. Off the coast of Tuscany the shipwreck of a Roman boat was discovered, and explored during the 1980s and 1990s. The most accredited hypothesis is that the boat, known as the Relitto del Pozzino (Pozzino’s shipwreck), dates 120-140 BCE and that was a trading ship sailing from the Asia minor and Greece areas, carrying wine, glass cup and lamps.
The vessel was laying about 18 metres underwater in the Baratti’s gulf, not far from the remains of the important Etruscan city of Populonia, a key port along trade routes across the Mediterranean.
Various pharmacological preparations were also found, together with a surgery hook, a mortar 136 wooden drug vials and in particular several tin boxes. These boxes, called pyxides, were subjected to x-ray examination. The analysis showed something interesting inside one of the pyxides: five circular medicinal “tablets”. Due to the fact that they were sealed, the “tablets” were in a good state of conservation and completely dry, even though they were resting on the sea floor for a very long time.
In 2012, a team of Italian scientist, belonging to the Chemistry department of the Pisa’s University and the Evolutionary biology of the Florence’s University, under the supervision of the Superintendence for the Archaeology Heritage of Tuscany, analyzed these remains, combining chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations. The scientists used the most modern analytical techniques, like scanning electron microscope (SEM), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), X-ray powder diffraction (XRD), and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), with the aim to clarify their compositions and possible uses.
In order to characterize the composition of the materials, fragments were sampled from a broken tablet with a scalpel, dived into subsamples, and stored in glass containers.
The results showed that the disks’ components were about 80% inorganic with zinc as the main element (75%), along with silicon, and iron, as minor elements. For the organic part the analysis pointed out to the presence of starch, that was a well known ingredient of Roman cosmetics, beeswax, a mix of vegetal and animal derived fats, including olive oil, pine resin, that may have prevented the oil from going rancid and opposed microbes’ growth due to its antiseptic properties.
Comparing the results of these analysis with ancient collections of pharmacological recipes, proves that zinc oxide and hematite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as shown in one of Galen’s treatise, Medicines according to Places.
“Cleaned Cadmia (zinc oxide), 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 24 drams; Cyprian ash (i.e. copper), 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg” (Galen, Compositions of medicines according to Places 4.8, 12.774 Khun).
The efficacy of zinc compounds in treating human diseases suggests that zinc carbonate and hydroxycarbonate were the active compounds in the formulation of Pozzino’s tablets. Zinc oxide was considered important from a therapeutic point of view. It was obtained during the casting of copper from minerals also containing zinc ores, as reported by Pliny the Elder in Naturalis historia, and Dioscorides in De materia medica, describing different qualities of cadmia collected from the vaults or walls of the furnaces during copper production. They wrote how this side-product was useful for the eyes’ treatment and for general dermatological purposes.
The compositions and the old recipes described above give very little clues about the way the remedy should have been prepared and applied. We can imagine that all dry products should have been crushed together in a mortar, diluted in wine and moulded into tablets, dried and dissolved in a liquid, as water, wine, or egg (as suggested in the Galen’s recipe).
In a previous study on the Pozzino’s tablets, a US team from the Smithsonian’s Centre for Conservation and evolutionary Genetics, carried out a genetic analysis of the vegetal materials contained in the remains. Comparing the sequences of DNA fragments to a genetic database, the scientists identified many plants, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage. The results of this research suggested a different theory for the use of the pills. They could have been used for gastrointestinal disorders, and taken by the sailors during their long trips. So, were the Pozzino’s tablets medicines meant to cure sore eyes, or for painful bellies? Whatever the truth is, these findings, studies and debates would help to enhance our knowledge of the sophisticated ancient pharmaceutical world.