A first aid box which was found in a ship that sank 2,000 years ago is giving a remarkable insight into the medicines that ancient sailors used to cure dysentery and other ailments.
A wooden chest discovered on board the vessel contained pills made of ground-up vegetables, herbs and plants such as celery, onions, carrots, cabbage, alfalfa and chestnuts - all ingredients referred to in classical medical texts.
AdvertisementThe tablets, which were so well sealed that they miraculously survived being under water for more than two millennia, also contain extracts of parsley, nasturtium, radish, yarrow and hibiscus.
They were found in 136 tin-lined wooden vials on a 50ft-long trading ship, which was wrecked around 130 BC off the coast of Tuscany.
Scientists believe they would have been used to treat gastrointestinal complaints suffered by sailors such as dysentery and diarrhoea.
"It's a spectacular find. They were very well sealed," Dr Alain Touwaide, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC, told The Sunday Telegraph.
"The plants and vegetables were probably crushed with a mortar and pestle - we could still see the fibres in the tablets. They also contained clay, which even today is used to treat gastrointestinal problems."
Historians believe the presence of the medicine chest suggests that the ship may have had a doctor on board, or at least someone trained in rudimentary first aid. The chest also contained spatulas, suction cups and a mortar and pestle.
The ship was discovered off the port of Piombino in 1974 and the wooden medicine box was found in 1989, but it is only now that scientists have been able to use DNA sequencing technology to analyse the contents of the pills.
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