The analysis of Greek medicine αγγλικά/ αρχαιότητα/ ιατρική

by Michael Scott

In early September the New Scientist magazine published an article about the analysis of medical pills found aboard an ancient Greek ship, which sank off the coast of Italy in 130 BC. This story was remarkable for several reasons. First that these pills, along with plenty of Syrian glassware, have survived underwater this long (indeed reports are that most of the pills were actually still dry!).

Second that we have the scientific techniques to hand to analyse what was in these pills (on this account we have had to wait 20 years or so since the ship was first discovered to be able to analyse them fully). Thirdly, because it widens our gaze substantially not just into the medical know-how of the ancients and their pill-popping antics, but also into the workings of their vast trading networks.

Scientists and ancient historians have been especially pleased about this find because these pills are the some of the first pieces of physical evidence to corroborate the kind of drug remedies advocated in a series of surviving ancient literary medical texts.

The study of medicine and human illness has a long history in the ancient world – dating back to its earliest formation and particularly to the famous doctor and writer Hippocratus (from whom we get the Hippocratic oath) in the 4th century BC, which was also a time of increasingly strained relationships between the developing art of human-administered medical treatment and divine-cures obtained through ‘healing’ sanctuaries (such as that of Asclepius at Epidaurus, as covered in a previous blog).

What was in these pills? DNA comparative analysis has shown that they are a mixture of different kinds of natural substances: carrot, radish, celery, wild onion, oak, cabbage, alfalfa and yarrow. Many of these are attested in surviving ancient authors as having healing properties, and some scientists are suggesting that the use of these substances in ancient times may provide useful evidence and avenues for modern drug research.

But what interests me especially is also how these pills provide evidence for the complex trading network which spread across the Mediterranean (and well beyond), on which both the ancient Greek and Roman worlds depended.

One of the ingredients found in the pills was hibiscus extract, which the scientists say was probably imported from East Asia or the lands of present-day India or Ethiopia. At the same time these pills were found on what seems to have been a Greek trading vessel taking Syrian glass, possibly to Italy.

The pills themselves, and their find spot, are thus not just fantastic evidence of ancient medicine, but also of an incredible system of international trade and exchange.