Roman medical kit offers insight into Greek influence

Over two thousand years ago, a Roman ship sank off the coast of Italy, near the island of Elba. Among the items on the ship was an ancient medical kit containing a mortar and pestle set, medicine spatulas, and pills and tablets that are surprisingly similar to our modern ones.

The ship was found in 20 meters (60 feet) of water in the 1970s, and the medical kit was found in 1989, but only in recent years have archaeologists been able to analyze the contents of the pills, using DNA sequencing. Now they know that the ingredients included celery fiber, alfalfa, chestnuts, and other items often mentioned in period medical treatises. Some of the tablets contain clay, which is still given by modern physicians for certain gastrointestinal complaints.

Dr. Alain Touwaide, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC, was interviewed by the Sunday Telegraph. He says the discovery is evidence that "ancient Greek medical knowledge was being put into practice in the Roman Empire."