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article imageScientists analyze ancient pills found in Roman shipwreck

By Angela Harris     Jan 8, 2013 in Science
Ancient pills and surgical tools more than 2000 years old were discovered in a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany.
Scientists have found an ancient medical kit containing six pills dating back more than 2,000 years in a shipwreck off the Tuscan Coast. The ship, named "Relitto del Pozzino," was first discovered in 1974. Although scientists studied the wreckage in the 1980s and 1990s, they are now able to analyze the pills using sophisticated DNA technology.
"We obtained some samples in 2004, but only recently a next generation sequencing technology has allowed us to identify their ingredients," said Alain Touwaide of the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.
The samples were collected using a "very thin scalpel" and analyzed using mass spectrometry. Ingredients discovered include animal and vegetable fats, carrot, parsley, wild onion, radish, cabbage, pine resin, starch and zinc compounds.
Based on initial analysis of the samples, scientists believed the pills were used to treat eye disease. Touwaide believes the pills might have also been used for wound care as well. Researchers think the tablets were applied topically to skin and eyes after being dissolved in water.
According to ophthalmologist Dr. Mark Fromer of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, the tablets were probably used to make an eyewash to treat dry eye. "It's easy to make: it's saline, which has a pH close to tears," he said.
Scientists noted some of the ingredients used are still considered useful for medical preparations. "The research highlights the continuity from then until now in the use of some substances for the treatment of human diseases," said archaeologist and head chemist Gianna Giachi of the Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany.
"This information potentially represents essentially several centuries of clinical trials," Touwaide agreed. "If natural medicine is used for centuries and centuries, it's not because it doesn't work."
Finding ancient pharmaceuticals in such good condition is rare. Scientists believe the pills were preserved so well because of the tin, called a pyxis, in which they were stored. Found with the pills were 136 boxwood vials, a tin pitcher, tin containers and a copper bleeding cup.
The findings were presented at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark by geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
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