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Ancient pills found in shipwreck offer rare insight into early medicine

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TUESDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Archeologists investigating an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany report they have stumbled upon a rare find: a tightly closed tin container with well-preserved medicine dating back to about 140-130 B.C.

A multi-disciplinary team analyzed fragments of the green-gray tablets to decipher their chemical, mineralogical and botanical composition. The results offer a peek into the complexity and sophistication of ancient therapeutics.

"The research highlights the continuity from then until now in the use of some substances for the treatment of human diseases," said archeologist and lead researcher Gianna Giachi, a chemist at the Archeological Heritage of Tuscany, in Florence, Italy. "The research also shows the care that was taken in choosing complex mixtures of products -- olive oil, pine resin, starch -- in order to get the desired therapeutic effect and to help in the preparation and application of medicine."

The medicines and other materials were found together in a tight space and are thought to have been originally packed in a chest that seems to have belonged to a physician, said Alain Touwaide, scientific director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, in Washington, D.C. Touwaide is a member of the multi-disciplinary team that analyzed the materials.

The tablets contained an iron oxide, as well as starch, beeswax, pine resin and a mixture of plant-and-animal-derived lipids, or fats. Touwaide said botanists on the research team discovered that the tablets also contained carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage -- simple plants that would be found in a garden.

Giachi said that the composition and shape of the tablets suggest they may have been used to treat the eyes, perhaps as an eyewash. But Touwaide, who compared findings from the analysis to what has been understood from ancient texts about medicine, said the metallic component found in the tablets was evidently used not just for eyewashes but also to treat wounds.

The discovery, Touwaide said, is evidence of the effectiveness of some natural medicines that have been used for literally thousands of years. "This information potentially represents essentially several centuries of clinical trials," he explained. "If natural medicine is used for centuries and centuries, it's not because it doesn't work."

A report on the analysis of the tablets was published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.