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Ancient Roman Pill

Scientists Reveal Contents of 2,000-Year-Old Roman Pill

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A team of Italian scientists have conducted a chemical analysis on some ancient Roman medicinal pills discovered in the Relitto del Pozzino, a 2000-year-old submerged shipping vessel which sank off the coast of Tuscany, revealing what exactly the ancient Romans used as medicine.

The Roman shipwreck lay near the remains of the Etruscan city of Populonia, which at the time the ship foundered was a key port along sea trade routes between the west and east across the Mediterranean Sea.

The Relitto del Pozzino was excavated by the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany throughout the 1980s and 90s, revealing a variety of fascinating cargo including lamps originating in Asia minor, Syrian-Palestinian glass bowls, bronze jugs, ceramic vessels for carrying wine and, of particular interest, the remains of a medicine chest containing a surgery hook, a mortar, 136 wooden drug vials and several cylindrical tin vessels, one of which contained five circular medicinal tablets.

The tin vessels (called pyxides) had remained completely sealed, which kept the pills dry, providing an amazing opportunity to find out exactly what substances were contained within them.

The results of the chemical analysis, which have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that the pills contain a number of zinc compounds, as well as iron oxide, starch, beeswax, pine resin and other plant-derived materials.  Based on their shape and composition, scientists have suggested that the tablets were used as a type of eye medicine.

Although it is unknown how effective the medicine would have been in treating an eye condition, the discovery has provided a rare glimpse into Roman-era medicinal practices.

By April Holloway

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