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Roman Shipwreck Contained Oldest Known Eye Medicine

DIE WELT (Germany), PNAS (USA)


PISA - Take a guess how many types of medication you have in your medicine chest. Fifty? A few hundred?

Medication is a banality in our day – but things looked very different 2000 years ago when there were no pharmaceutical giants and mass production facilities. Hippocrates had to pick his own herbs and mix his own salves and tinctures. Needless to say that only a few privileged patients were at the receiving end of such work-intensive services.

So even for just those reasons the discovery of some researchers from Pisa and Florence is a sensation, reports Die Welt.

From the depths of the sea off the coast of Tuscany, Italy, out of the wreck of a sunken ship, they have brought up a tin pillbox containing ancient medication – six pills, over 2000 years old. That’s how old the wreck of the trading ship "Relitto del Pozzino" is.

Photo Parchi Val di Cornia

The ancient pillbox will doubtlessly turn out to be one of the most valuable items found in the shipwreck. By analyzing the contents of the tablets, the team working with Erika Ribechini of the University of Pisa is hoping to find new information about ancient healing arts and potential new approaches for modern healing methods.

In Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Ribechini reveals what is in the pills. The main component is still used today: zinc, which has disinfecting properties and is used in the treatment of wounds. She believes the tablets were not meant to be swallowed but rubbed on the eyelids to combat eye disease. “The composition and the form of the tablets seem to indicate that they were used for ophthalmic purposes: the Latin name collyrium (eyewash) comes from the Greek name κoλλυ´ρα, which means “small round loaves,” writes Ribechini.

Who knows – maybe one day this ancient medication will make its way in a modern version into our medicine chests. Assuming there’s still room.

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