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Ancient Pills Found in Shipwreck Offer Rare Insight Into Early Medicine
Date:1/8/2013

stood 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.

The shipwrecked boat -- the Relitto del Pozzino -- was found in the Gulf of Baratti in 1974 and first explored eight years later. The analysis of the tablets was begun about two years ago, Giachi said. The vessel, about 50 to 60 feet long, was found in an area considered a key east-west trade route.

In addition to the pills, archeologists found other remnants of early medicine: a copper bleeding cup, a tin pitcher, 136 boxwood vials, and tin containers.

The tablets were well preserved for the last 2,000 years because the cylindrical tin container in which they were stored, called a pyxis, was hermetically sealed by the natural degradation of the metal, Giachi said, adding that very few other ancient medicines have been discovered elsewhere.

"In London, a granular cream was discovered in a small tin canister. It was dated to the second century A.D. and was probably used as moistening or medicinal cream," Giachi said.

Giachi noted that another botanical medicine was found at the bottom of a dolium -- a large Roman earthenware container -- from the first century A.D., recovered near Pompeii. Also, in Lyon, France, cylindrical rods recovered from a second century A.D. burial site were considered to be eyewashes.

To analyze the material found in the shipwreck, a fragment fr
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