From the dry sands of Egypt… Greek medicine labels on papyrus

By Isabella Bonati

Amongst the many objects depicted in the “unswept floor” mosaic by Heraclitus (II cent. CE) there is a drug container (unguentarium) with a narrow, probably folded, papyrus tag suspended from its neck. This tag likely offered the identification of the content, possibly an ointment or some aromata, stored into the unguentarium. This striking mosaic provides archeological evidence of the common use of medicine labels across the ancient world. [1]

imm1-unswept-floor-mosaic
Drug container with papyrus label. Detail of the asàrotos òikos mosaic (“unswept floor”) by Heraclitus, Gregorian Profane Museum (Vatican Museums), cat. 10132.

Like the modern patient information leaflets, the practice of labeling containers was particularly useful in medical contexts. In spite of the perishability of their support, some of these labels on papyrus have been preserved by the dry sands of Egypt. One example is a strip of papyrus cut on all sides (8,5 cm x 22 cm), dating back to the first half of the III century BCE on paleographical ground (SB XIX 12074).[2]

imm2-papyrus-with-a-list-of-spices
Ptolemaic list of aromata and honey on papyrus (SB XIX 12074), Ann Arbor, Michigan University, Library P. 3243

The papyrus contains a list of five spices – cassia, cinnamon, nard, myrrh and saffron – and two specific kinds of honey – the Cretan and the Theangelic – commonly used in medical recipes. The strip was folded vertically down the center in order to obtain five panels of equal size. Then a notch was cut along the right-hand fold producing two holes. It is likely that a string was passed through the holes to suspend the folded sheet from or attach it to some other object, such the container storing the remedy obtained by the ingredients mentioned in the list, like in the mosaic image above. Thus, this papyrus seems to represent a concrete specimen of the practice illustrated in the “unswept floor” mosaic.

This particular medical label belongs to a broader context. Greek medical papyri coming from Egypt, dating from the III century BCE to the VII century CE, represent a body of evidence offering a rich and veritable picture of medical tradition over this thousand-year period.[3] Indeed, aside from literary fragments and adespota handbooks copied by professional scribes, practical medical texts constitute the largest group of surviving papyri. Thus, collections of drug recipes used by physicians and medical prescriptions written on single papyrus sheets attest to the wide variety of remedies circulating in Egypt at the time.

Among the medical papyri discovered and published so far, just a few of them – about 10 items – may be interpreted as medicine labels. These share formal and material features. Often the writing is concise and the small papyrus is expressly cut from a larger sheet of a particular thickness. According to the kind of information they contain, these labels on papyrus, parchment or ostraca may be divided in three categories: some of them carry only the name of a drug or medicine, others only the therapeutic indication introduced by pros (“against”) plus the name(s) of the disease(s) in accusative, reproducing the typical formula of the epangelia of the medical prescriptions. A third category displays both the therapeutic indication and the name of the medicinal substance, occasionally followed by the quantity. So, these last specimina have features more similar to actual recipes. A papyrus strip measuring 10,6 x 4 cm, P.Prag. III 249 (VII CE),[4] may serve as an exemplar of this category:

‘Against spreading ulcers. Of incense ounce(s)…’

imm3-p-prag-iii-249
Medicine label on papyrus (P.Prag. III 249), Prague, National Library P. Wessely, Prag. Gr. III 1204 v

In conclusion, in the everyday practice, these tags were attached to – or stored with – small containers or boxes for aromata and medicaments by the pharmacopolai, the apothecaries who were used to sell drugs and pharmaceutical products to the doctors. These inscribed labels likely identified the content of small jars or vases circulating on the trade-market: they are a surprising witness of both the medical practices and the commerce in the ancient world, as is concretely revealed by the dialogue between the archaeological and papyrological evidence survived from the telling silence of the past.

[1] The “unswept floor” mosaic asàrotos òikos is in the Gregorian Profane Museum (Vatican Museums). This detail is taken from L. Taborelli, Sulle ampullae vitreae. Spunti per l’approfondimento della loro problematica nell’ottica del rapporto tra contenitore e contenuto, ArchCl 44 (1992) 311, cf. pp. 326-7 for description and bibliography. For the entire mosaic see http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/MGPs/MGPs_Sala01_03.html#top.

[2] Editio princeps by A.E. Hanson, A Ptolemaic List of Aromata and Honey, TAPA 103 (1972) 161-6. For the image reproduced below see http://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/apis/x-1906.

[3] On medical papyri see, e.g., I. Andorlini, Prescription and Practice in Greek Medical Papyri from Egypt, in H. Froschauer-C.E. Römer (Hrsg.), Zwischen Magie und Wissenschaft, Ärzte und Heilkunst in den Papyri aus Ägypten. Katalog der Asstellung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Wien 2007, 23-33.

[4] Editio princeps by R. Luiselli, Etichetta di sostanza medicinale (Gr. III 1204 verso), in R. Pintaudi-D. Rathbone (eds.), Papyri Graecae Wessely Pragenses (P.Prag. III), Firenze 2011, 157-8, from which the image is taken (Pl. XLVI).

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Isabella Bonati is currently completing a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Papyrology at the Department of Letters, Arts, History and Society (L.A.S.S.) of the University of Parma, Italy, where she is involved in research activities in the ERC project DIGMEDTEXT (Online Humanities Scholarship: A Digital Medical Library based on Ancient Texts). She holds a PhD in Papyrology from the University of Parma and she received an Yggdrasil grant 2012-2013 at the University of Oslo. Her main research interests are concerned with papyrology, especially lexical studies. Other research interests include classical philology, linguistics, archaeology, history of medicine. For list of her publications go here.


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