Greek ship

Shipwreck reveals treasure box of intact ancient medicines

By Susan Perry  - Minn Post

The wreckage of a Greek ship that sank off the coast of Tuscany, Italy, in 130 B.C. has provided modern scientists with the first physical evidence of medicines prescribed by such ancient Greek physicians as Galen and Dioscorides.

And the results are fascinating (well, for medical history buffs like me).

As reported in New Scientist, the millennia-old treasure-box of pills was actually discovered — almost completely dry, remarkably — along with the rest of the shipwreck in 1989, but archaeobotanists only recently got their hands on it.

Using DNA technology to analyze the medicine’s contents, the scientists found that each tablet contained more than 10 different plant extracts, including carrot, radish, celery, wild onion, oak, cabbage, alfalfa, and yarrow.

Such plants were commonly used at the time to treat physical — and mental — complaints. Yarrow, for example, was used to staunch blood flow from wounds, and carrot had many uses, including aiding conception and protecting people from reptiles (!), explains New Scientist reporter Shanta Barley.

One of the biggest surprises from the analysis was that the pills contained sunflower. Botanists have long believed that the sunflower first arrived in Europe in the 1400s, brought back from the newly discovered Americas.