Robert Fleischer

Shipwrecked 2,000-year-old pills give clues to ancient medicine

Ancient pills recovered from the shipwreck were not well mixed togetherPhoto Harry A. Alden

By Lee Speigel - AOL News

Scientists are trying to unravel the mystery of whether pills found in a 2,000-year-old shipwreck were, in fact, created and used as effective plant-based medicines.

And the bigger question: Could the ingredients of these ancient tablets still work to help with modern illnesses ?

Around 130 B.C., a ship, identified as the Relitto del Pozzino, sank off Tuscany, Italy. Among the artifacts found on board in 1989 were glass cups, a pitcher and ceramics, all of which suggested that the ship was sailing from the eastern Mediterranean area.

Its cargo also included a chest that contained various items related to the medical profession: a copper bleeding cup and 136 boxwood vials and tin containers.

Inside one of the tin vessels, archaeologists found several circular tablets, many still completely dry.

"They were less than an inch in diameter and about a third to a half inch thick," said Robert Fleischer, an evolutionary geneticist with the Smithsonian's Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics in Washington, D.C.

He told AOL News that the tablets were "very tightly compressed vegetation in a very solid pill. In fact, you had to use a scalpel to cut pieces off of it.

"But under a microscope, you could see plant fibers in it. It probably wasn't something that was taken whole.

"It was assumed the pills were medicines that the physicians were using. There were things associated with this chest that led them to believe it was a physician's chest," said Fleischer.

Using DNA sequencing, Fleischer has identified some of the plant components in the tablets: carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion, cabbage, alfalfa, oak and hibiscus.

This is similar to the recent archaeological discovery in China of a 2,400-year-old pot of soup in which the broth was found inside a sealed cauldron.

But the discovery of these tablets in the shipwreck marks the first time ever that archaeological remains of ancient medicines have been found and the first time DNA analysis has been used in the research.