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

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

Inside one of the tunnels under Rome, Italy.
Few visitors recognize that there is a forgotten world below the Roman Colosseum and Forum. The ancient maze of tunnels and quarries date back to the very beginning of this famous city. Locals, on the other hand, remember the existence of the underground pathways every time one of the ancient tunnels collapses, damaging the structures above. Hundreds of buildings and streets have fallen victim to the decaying tunnels.

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