A 16th century bezoar in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne

Bezoars: The Sought After Ancient Jewels Made from Animal Stomach Growths

(Read the article on one page)

There is an urban legend fueled by the movie Beverly Hills Cop that people have around 5 pounds of undigested meat in their stomach by the time they are middle-aged. Not so. But bezoars, which are pearl-like minerals that accrete around bits of stone, do rarely grow in the guts of people and animals. It’s a rare, dangerous condition, but bezoars of animals were used centuries ago in various places as cures for poisoning and disease and were often incorporated into prized jewels.

From ancient times through the 16 th century, bezoars were considered highly desirable objects that could be worn as charms or ground down and ingested. Bezoars were taken from the guts of deer, antelope, porcupines, goats, oxen and llamas.

A bezoar from the Treasury of the German Order

A bezoar from the Treasury of the German Order ( Wikimedia photo /Wolfgang Sauber)

The practice began in Persia and Arabia around the 1 st century AD and spread to Europe. People in the Andes Mountains of South America also apparently were using bezoars before Europeans arrived there.

Queen Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603, had a bezoar set in a silver ring, and people sometimes described the pale beige of her robes as bezoar-colored, says an article on Nautilus.

A jeweled bezoar

A jeweled bezoar (Photo by Albert/ Flickr)

Bezoar stones form around small rocks or cellulose that become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract. As time passes, layers of calcium and magnesium phosphate in the animal’s stomach build up around the rock fragments in layers and then are made smooth by muscle contractions, says the article.

The Nautilus article quotes a letter to the editor (PDF) in a 1943 issue of the British Medical Journal that states:

Perhaps obstruction by a food Bolus or Bezoar is by no means so uncommon and should be borne in mind in differential diagnoses of obstruction. The legend Of the bezoar stones, which was generally credited in olden times, was that they were the crystallized tears of deer. The deer ate snakes, which caused such intense stomach-ache that tears were brought to the animal's eyes, and these subsequently congealed beneath the lid as stones. These fell out and men gathered them up. Cases of poisoning and other noxious diseases were said to have been cured by them, and one was used as a last resort at the death of King Charles II. It may possibly be of interest to the academically minded surgeon to consider that which was once a magical stone endowed with life-giving properties is now a cause for surgical intervention And a portent of evil.

Indeed, WebMD has an article about bezoars that says they can form in human adults and children in the stomach or large or small intestine. Bezoars can cause nausea and vomiting, reduced appetite, weight loss and a feeling of being full after eating just a small amount of food. They can cause intestinal bleeding and gastric ulcers, and if that isn’t enough they can result in the death of tissues or gangrene in parts of the GI tract.

Persian and Greek doctors in the 1 st century AD were the first to use animal bezoars. The word comes from Persian padzahr. They were used in jewelry as charms and also ground up as antidotes and cures. In the 12 th century, the use of bezoars spread to Europe, brought there by Christian crusaders who invaded the Levant.

A 16th century bezoar in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne

A 16 th century bezoar in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne (Photo by Michael Martin/ Flickr)

Bezoars became very popular among rich Europeans, Nautilus says. By the end of the 17 th century people stopped using them, and by the 19 th century they were considered obsolete, although in China some people still use porcupine bezoars to heal dengue fever, the article states.

In Europe in the 16 th century, though, well before they fell out favor, a barber-surgeon named Ambrose Paré spoke against them. To test the effectiveness of bezoars, he gave a condemned criminal poisonous mercuric chloride and a bezoar. The man died an unpleasant death, reinforcing Paré’s belief that they were ineffective.

Top image: A 16 th century bezoar in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne (Photo by Michael Martin/ Flickr)

By Mark Miller

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Virtual recreation by Charles Chipiez. A panoramic view of the gardens and outside of the Palace of Darius I of Persia in Persepolis.
Once the stunning capital of the Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire), Persepolis was lost to the world for almost nineteen hundred years, buried in the dirt of southwestern Iran until the 17th century. Founded in 518 BC by Darius I of the Persian Empire, Persepolis (called Parsa by the native Persians) lasted only a mere two hundred years despite the grandeur Darius and his followers abundantly heaped on its construction. Notwithstanding Persepolis’ tragic end, what remains of the Persian citadel is astounding.

Myths & Legends

The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece: Jason and the Argonauts Get Fragrant
We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.

Ancient Places

Inside one of the tunnels under Valetta, Malta.
Hordes of tourists visit the Mediterranean island of Malta each year to enjoy the above ground attractions the country has to offer such as breath-taking sandy beaches, historical buildings, and traditional cuisine. Yet, there is also a subterranean world hidden beneath the island’s surface. These are the rumored secret tunnels of Malta.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article