Main: A diver searches the Relitto del Pozzino shipwreck (Not Only Chemistry). Inset: One of the medicinal tablets. Image via PNAS/Giachi et. al.

Scientists Learn Ingredients of 2,000-Year-Old Roman Pills Found in Ancient Shipwreck


Discoveries of ancient shipwrecks are always exciting, but a small number of them are truly unique in the artifacts they yield, offering up items from the past that have been preserved for centuries at the bottom of the sea. The finding of a 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck, known as the Relitto del Pozzino, which had sunk off the coast of Tuscany in Italy was one of these cases. Tucked away safely inside a sealed tin, were 5 perfectly preserved medicinal pills.

A front, profile, and rear view of one of the medicinal tablets. Image via PNAS/Giachi et. al.

A front, profile, and rear view of one of the medicinal tablets. Image via PNAS/Giachi et. al.

Discovery of the Ancient Wreck

The Relitto del Pozzino wreck was found near the remains of Populonia, an Etruscan city which served as a key port along trade routes operating between the west and the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Eventually, the Romans seized the entire coastline and ejected the Etruscans from it.

Main gate of Populonia

Main gate of Populonia (public domain)

A Rich Trove of Artifacts

First discovered in the 1980s, the shipwreck excited researchers with its rich trove of artifacts, including bronze jugs, lamps from Asia minor, Syrian-Palestinian glass bowls, and wine vessels. But one of the most fascinating relics was an ancient medicine chest containing 136 wooden drug vials, a surgery hook, a mortar and several tin vessels, known as pyxides.  Scientists were astounded to find that the tins were still sealed and had preserved their contents over two millennia. They now had a unique opportunity to learn the contents of Roman medicines.

The wooden drug vials found on the Relitto del Pozzino shipwreck

The wooden drug vials found on the Relitto del Pozzino shipwreck (Not Only Chemistry)

Analyzing the Pills

Several years ago, a research team undertook a chemical analysis of the 5 medicinal pills that were found in one of the tins and published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tests revealed that the pills were composed of zinc compounds, iron oxide, starch, beeswax, pine resin and other plant-derived materials.  By consulting with physicians and turning to historical records of ancient medicines, the researchers concluded that the pills were used as a type of eye medicine.

The discovery offered a rare glimpse into the medical treatments used in ancient Rome.

Top image: Main: A diver searches the Relitto del Pozzino shipwreck (Not Only Chemistry). Inset: One of the medicinal tablets. Image via PNAS/Giachi et. al.

By April Holloway

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