Italian peninsula

Shipwreck reveals ancient secrets of medicine

Archaeological Museum, artifacts from the wreck of Pozzino, lead containers kept in an aquarium

By Adrian Higgins - Washington Post

It has been more than 2,000 years since a Roman merchant ship foundered off the west coast of the Italian peninsula and almost 40 years since the wreck was discovered. Now, the DNA trapped in medicines found aboard the ship is yielding secrets of health care in the ancient world.

Samples from two tablets analyzed at the Smithsonian's Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics reveal a dried concoction of about a dozen medicinal herbs, including celery, alfalfa and wild onion, bound together with clay and zinc.

The tablets may have been used externally to treat skin conditions or dissolved in water or wine and taken for intestinal ailments such as dysentery, speculates Alain Touwaide, historian of sciences in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The DNA tests confirm that medicines written about in ancient texts were actually used, said Touwaide, who with his wife and research partner, Emanuela Appetiti, obtained the tablets from the Italian Department of Antiquities in 2004.