Analysis of Greek Pills

Carrot Seed in Greek Medecine - Theriac

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Ancient Romano/Greek Pills contain Carrots

Ancient Roman pharmacies must have looked a lot like vegetable gardens. Pills found on board a 2nd century B.C. shipwreck were made with crushed carrots, parsley, onions, alfalfa, and other vegetable matter, conforming to the recipes contained in ancient medical treatises. While the texts themselves were discovered long ago, the cache of ancient pharmaceuticals found onboard the sunken ancient vessel is the first time the medicines themselves have been found.  The definite usefulness of the medicines is as yet unknown, but archaeologists believe that these pills were likely stored on board as part of an ancient “first aid kit” for use by sailors suffering from a variety of ailments.

Medicinal plants have of course been identified before, but what this discovery reveals is that they were put together as a compound medicine. The plants and vegetables were probably crushed with a mortar and pestle and the fibres in the tablets are still visible. They also contained clay, which even today is used to treat gastrointestinal problems. The tablets might have been used to treat dysentery or cholera for the people on the boat, and this was known to be quite a problem among sailors. The large number of vials suggests that the medicines might have been shipped as cargo rather than being used by the ship's doctor, either hypothesis is possible.

Photo (above left, courtesy of Alain Touwaide) shows the dark spots which are microscopic plant fragments found embedded in clay on board the wrecked ship. Actually archaeologists still don’t know whether the ship was Roman, Greek, or Phoenician, nor do they know whether it was a long distance trading ship operating throughout the Mediterranean or a coastal vessel.

The artefacts from the shipwrecked Relitto del Pozzino can be seen on display at the Archaeological Museum of Populonia in Piombino, Italy. More information -

Carrots, parsley and wild onions were among the samples preserved in clay pills on board the merchant trading vessel that sank around 125 BC. It's believed the plants were used by doctors to treat intestinal disorders among the ship's crew. Such remedies are described in ancient Greek texts, but this is the first time the medicines themselves have been discovered.

The vegetable-packed pills were found in 136 tin-lined wooden containers on a 50-foot long trading ship that sank to a depth of about 60 feet sometime around 125 B.C. off the coast of Tuscany. The ruins were discovered in 1974 near the port city of Piombino, which lies on the border between the Ligurian Sea and the Tyrrhenian Sea, in front of Elba Island and at the northern side of Maremma. The cache of medicine was found some 15 years later, but the technology required to accurately analyze the DNA sequence of the material was only recently developed.

Touwaide said the medicines discovered on the wreck support his theory that though apothecaries had access to hundreds of medicinal plants, they purposefully limited their palette to a few herbs but used them in different formulas to treat a range of ailments. “You’re in a better position if you reduce the number of substances. If you have substances that are easy to find and native to your region, you can always come up with a remedy,” said Touwaide. 

At first glance, the list may seem more like a recipe for soup than a pharmaceutical formula. Indeed, the tablets are essentially 2,000-year-old bouillon cubes, composed of carrots, broccoli, leeks, cabbage, parsley, onions, radishes and other assorted plants and herbs. But for Touwaide, the fact that most of these items can be found in your average kitchen garden made perfect sense, and reflected the basic principles behind ancient remedies he had gleaned from countless texts. (

The Hippocratic Collection, a series of ancient Greek texts attributed to Hippocrates, who is often called the father of Western medicine, refers to 380 medicinal herbs useful for a variety of ailments, Touwaide said, but he added that ancient Greek healers relied mainly on just 45 plants. Among the herbs found in the two tablets was wild carrot, for instance, which had been identified by the 1st-century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides as a diuretic that was used to treat colic, wounds and poisonous bites.

The ship fashioned from the wood of walnut trees and bulging with medicines and Syrian glassware sank off the coast of Tuscany, Italy  probably between 140 and 120 BCE.  Among the items recovered from the ship, which was excavated in the 1980s and 90s, was a wooden medical chest stocked with well-preserved tablets filled with what looked like ground plants and vegetables. Modern DNA analysis of the 2000-year-old medicinal tablets suggests the pills included onions, carrots and other garden vegetables. The pills are about the size of a small coin and if administered orally, would have been taken with water or wine. If the prescription called for a topical application, however, they would have been dissolved in vinegar and then applied to cuts, bruises, or burns. A doctor was likely a member of the vessel’s crew, and the stock was brought on board by him in order to prevent and treat the various illnesses common among sailors of the ancient world. Among the artefacts 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 surgical hook, a mortar, a copper bleeding cup and a tin pitcher with a thieve and 136 boxwood vials and tin containers.  The implements were all located close together, leading researchers to believe they were originally packed in a chest belonging to a physician.

The boxwood Pill containers

The full museum display

Inside one of the tin vessels, archaeologists found several circular tablets,  (diameter 3 cm ca.), flat (thickness 5 mm.), and of green-grey colour, which seemed to be medicines, many still completely dry. They were less than an inch in diameter and about a third to a half inch thick.

Archaeologists found its precious load 20 years ago and now, for the first time, archaeobotanists have been able to examine and analyse pills that were prepared by the physicians of ancient Greece. Medicinal plants have been identified before, but not a compound medicine, so this is really something new.

DNA analyses show that each millennia-old tablet is a mixture of more than 10 different plant extracts, from hibiscus to celery.

"For the first time, we have physical evidence of what we have in writing from the ancient Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen," says Alain Touwaide of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. The pills, which researchers believe were diluted with vinegar or water to make them easier to ingest, were preserved inside tin boxes and were the size of coins.

"I was always wondering if the texts were only theoretical notions without practical application," he says. "Now we know they were applied."

The box of pills was discovered on the wreck in 1989, with much of the medicine still completely dry, according to Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, also in Washington DC.

Fleischer analysed DNA fragments in two of the pills and compared the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health. He was able to identify carrot, radish, celery, wild onion, oak, cabbage, alfalfa and yarrow. He also found hibiscus extract, probably imported from east Asia or the lands of present-day India or Ethiopia.

Most of these plants are known to have been used by the ancients to treat sick people. Yarrow was known to staunch the flow of blood from wounds, and Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician and pharmacologist in Rome in the first century AD, described the carrot as a panacea for a number of problems. "They say that reptiles do not harm people who have taken it in advance; it also aids conception," he wrote around 60 AD.

The precise provenance of the pills is irrelevant, however, as it is widely known that doctors from throughout the settled world along the Mediterranean coast were penning medical reference works for years by the time the ship sank near Tuscany. One of the principal compilations was the Hippocratic Corpus. This seminal work is a collection of around 60 early Ancient Greek medical works strongly associated with the Greek physician Hippocrates and his teachings. The topics covered in the corpus vary widely and are equally disparate in age, style, and verifiable authorship.

Although relying heavily on the information provided in the Hippocrates Corpus, Dr. Touwaide also referred to other similar sources to compliment the Hippocratic knowledge. One such book is the Encyclopedia of Natural Substances. The Encyclopaedia of Natural Substances is a five-volume encyclopaedia about herbal medicines written by Pedanius Dioscorides. (read more on the translation of the Dioscorides text here)

Dioscorides was a Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist; and his pharmacopeia was studied and read by medical students and practitioners for over a thousand years after its publication. Dr. Touwaide is hoping that the synthesis of ancient printed prescriptions and the plant DNA itself will produce new insight into unusual methods for employing ancient knowledge in the production of modern medicines. Most medicines are already derived from natural ingredients, but the active ingredients are isolated, synthetically formulated, and mass produced. “We extract the information from these texts so that scientists can see if they can make shortcuts to pharmacological discoveries. We re-purpose ancient medical information and jump from the past to the future,” Touwaide explained.

The concoctions have also thrown archaeobotanists a few mysteries. Preliminary analyses of the ancient pills suggest they contain sunflower, a plant that is not thought to have existed in the Old World before Europeans discovered the Americas in the 1400s. If the finding is confirmed, botanists may need to revise the traditional history of the plant and its diffusion, says Touwaide - but it's impossible for now to be sure that the sunflower in the pills isn't simply from recent contamination.

Drugs described by Dioscorides and another Greek physician known as Galen of Pergamon have often been dismissed as ineffectual quackery. "Scholars and scientists have often dismissed the literature on such medicines, and expressed doubt about their possible efficacy, which they attributed only to the presence of opium," says Touwaide. He hopes to resolve this debate by exploring whether the plant extracts in the pills are now known to treat illnesses effectively.

AD 512  The  Greek Herbal of Dioscorides: Illustrated by a Byzantine A.D. 512. - First known depiction of Orange rooted Carrot - Dioskorides Codex Vindobonensis Medicus Greacus. (Austrian facsimiles from 1965, together with commentary - studied at the Royal Botanical Gardens Library, Kew Gardens, England). Three "orange rooted carrots" are depicted:

Cultivated and wild carrots from the Juliana Anicia Codex of 512

carrot depicted in ad 512 - cultivated

carrot depicted in ad 512 - cultivated

carrot depicted in ad 512 - wild

Staphylinos Keras
The cultivated carrot
Staphylinos Agrios
The wild carrot, but appears to be a primitive type of cultivated carrot
The wild carrot (Daucus gingidium).
(also referred to as Cretan carrot)

He also hopes to discover "Theriac or Theriaca" - a medicine described by Galen in the second century AD that contains more than 80 different plant extracts – and document the exact measurements ancient doctors used to manufacture the pills. "Who knows, these ancient medicines could open new paths for pharmacological research," says Touwaide. Theriaca is supposed to be an antidote to poisoning. Theriac ingredients taken from the Amsterdammer Apotheek (1683) and translated from the old Latin names into the Latin names shows that Daucus Carota (wild carrot) seeds were included. The production of a proper theriac took months with all the collection and fermentation of herbs and other ingredients. It was supposed to be left to mature for years. As a result it was also expensive and hence available only for the rich. Patients would use theriac for bites but also as a preventative against any kind of poisoning and eventually against just about anything. It was used in salves and plasters or just eaten in chunks.

(Cretan carrot seeds were used in ancient recipes for universal panacea drugs such as "Theriac or theriaca" (also known as Venetian Treacle) which was a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD - modern treacle derives from this - History of Theriac -

The team presented their findings in 2010 at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Prof Touwaide says the traditional cures based on plants and minerals are in danger of being forgotten. He says part of the problem is that too few people now study classical Greek, Latin or Arabic and there are not enough experts to interpret the original texts. Prof Touwaide is proficient in 12 languages and has spent years collecting his library of 15,000 books on plants and their uses. He believes such ancient knowledge should become protected by Unesco as part of the world's heritage.

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