Tag Archives: Egypt

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]

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]

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)…’

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).


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.

How to Make an Inca Mummy

Christopher Heaney


As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.


[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Wormy beer and wet nursing in the Roman Empire

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

As pointed out by Elaine Leong in a recent post, beer is a favourite topic at The Recipes Project. As a Belgian, I felt I should perhaps add something to the subject. As a classicist, however, I rarely encounter beer. Famously, the Greeks and Romans were wine drinkers, and considered beer a Barbarian beverage. Still, ancient medical texts do give us some information on beer. The pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) describes two types of beer:

Beer (zuthos) it is prepared with barley. It is diuretic and has an effect on the kidneys and tendons. It is particularly harmful for the membranes [of the brain?]. It causes flatulence and produces bad humours, and it causes elephantiasis. Horn becomes easy to work when soaked in this drink.

The so-called kourmi is also prepared with barley; it is often drunk instead of wine. It causes headaches, is unwholesome and harmful to the nerves/sinews. In Western Spain and Britain, such drinks are also made with wheat. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.87 and 88]

Clearly, Dioscorides is not selling these drinks to us. They cause all sort of troubles to those who consume them, some of which sound particularly unpleasant. While Dioscorides’ elephantiasis is most certainly not full-blown Proteus syndrome, its symptoms must have included painful swellings. In fact, the only positive property of beer according to the pharmacologist is to make horn malleable, which I guess is useful if you specialise in deer-antler carving. Interestingly, Dioscorides describes beer as a Celtic drink, omitting the fact that the Egyptians too were beer-drinkers.

Ancient Greek and Roman regimens and recipes rarely mention beer, which is no surprise when we consider Dioscorides’ view of the beverage. There is, however, one significant exception: the diet of the wet-nurse recommended by Antyllus, a second-century physician, whose precepts are preserved in the writings of Oribasius (fourth century CE). In the ancient world, arrangements between family members and neighbours to breastfeed each other’s children may have been common, but they have gone unrecorded. Paid wet-nurses, by contrast, may have been relatively exceptional, but they are well documented in written records. Hiring a wet-nurse was an expensive and difficult endeavour. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the evidence), ‘experts’ were on hand to ditch out advice. Antyllus was one such expert. Here are his recommendations to deal with a wet-nurse’s insufficient milk supply:

[Recipe] to make the milk come abundantly in the breast: crush 5 or 6 worms that are found in the mud of the river, those that are called ‘the guts of the earth’; add dates, wine dregs, and rub together. Give it to the woman to drink in beer, telling her to wash herself and to fast beforehand. Give for 10 days and wonder at how abundant and good the milk is. [Oribasius, Libri incerti 34.6]

The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin
The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin

‘Yum-yum’ I hear you say. Interestingly, beer and dates remain used as galactagogues to this day, preferably without added worms. Antyllus’ recipe is almost certainly Egyptian. As already mentioned, the Greeks and Romans did not drink beer, but the Egyptians did. Date palms did not bear their fruits to maturity in Greece and Italy, but they did in Egypt. The muddy river mentioned by Antyllus must be the Nile.

At the time of Antyllus, Egypt was under Roman rule, and Alexandria in the Delta of the Nile was a famous centre of medical knowledge, perhaps one where Antyllus himself studied. As it happens, wet-nurse contracts from Roman Egypt have survived (see here for an example), although they remain silent on the nurse’s diet and never mention worms.

First Monday Library Chat: Cambridge University Library

Today’s First Monday Library Chat takes us back to England to talk with Dr. Suzanne Paul, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library. The University Library is the central library on Cambridge’s campus, used by members of all Cambridge colleges, researchers from all over the world and accessible to the public for a nominal fee.

As the Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, could you tell us broadly about the medieval manuscripts held by Cambridge University Library? What are the strengths of your collection?
The collection, consisting of c. 3000 items, is very broad based, as you might expect in a library that’s been acquiring manuscripts for 600 years. There are some outstanding early medieval manuscripts, like the early 5th-century ‘Codex Bezae’ and the 10th-century ‘Book of Deer’, believed to be the oldest extant book produced in Scotland, but numerically, the greatest strength lies in the 12th-15th centuries and ranges across religious, literary, historical, scientific and legal texts. The majority of our manuscripts are of English provenance, from a variety of monastic and other institutional sources and from numerous individual collectors. Our current exhibition showcases our French medieval manuscripts but we have a particular strength in manuscripts containing Middle English texts.

Do any of these medieval manuscripts contain recipes?
The short answer is ‘yes’. The majority of the recipes in our manuscripts are medical but there are also alchemical, culinary, veterinary and what I would term ‘artisanal’ recipes for activities such as making ink and glue or gilding and colouring. The issue, as always, is finding the recipes. The principal catalogue for our main ‘two-letter’ (Dd-Oo) collection dates from the 1850s and the treatment of recipes is generally cursory. The Middle English recipe texts received some attention with the compilation of the IMEP volume relating to the collection (Margaret Connolly, Index of Middle English Prose: Handlist XIX Manuscripts in the University Library, Cambridge (Dd-Oo), Cambridge: Brewer, 2009). Connolly estimates that there are well over 2000 recipes in the manuscripts she indexed and she drew attention to three manuscripts (CUL MSS Dd.5.76, Dd.6.29 and Ee.1.15) which each contain over 200 recipes. Of course, many recipes occur singly or in small groups, many were added to manuscripts later, in blank spaces or on flyleaves, and many are not written in Middle English. Work is in progress to produce new online descriptions of all the manuscripts but there is a lot of work to be done on identifying and classifying recipe texts.
My colleague, Dr Anke Timmermann, is investigating alchemical images in manuscripts held in Cambridge libraries and will be producing a handlist of alchemical resources and images. She recently came across an interesting series of alchemical illustrations in a seventeenth-century manuscript which form a visual representation of the recipe for the philosophers’ stone (see image below), along with an intriguing personification.

alchemical manuscript
‘the crowing of nature’ – 17th c. visual alchemical recipe. CUL MS Gg.1.8, f. 80r. By permission of the Syndics of CUL.

I’m interested in the Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection – the world’s largest and most important collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts.  Are there any recipe-related items in this collection?
The Genizah collection is made up of 190,000 manuscript fragments recovered from the storeroom of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Egypt. Although the Genizah was intended as a depository for worn-out sacred texts too precious to throw away, many secular documents dating from the 10th to the 17th centuries ended up in it. These Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew texts give us a unique insight into Jewish communal and domestic life and the wider economic and social history of the medieval Mediterranean and Near East. Dozens of medical recipes have been recovered from the Genizah, including this one, recently identified as a prescription in the hand of the great Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides. See Efraim Lev and Leigh Chipman, Medical Prescriptions in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (Leiden: Brill, 2012) for more.
The alchemical material in the Genizah collection is the subject of research by my colleague, Dr Gabriele Ferrario. Although there has been a pervasive tradition identifying Egypt as a centre of alchemical knowledge and a longstanding belief in the Jews as particularly skilled practitioners, it is only now that the actual activities of Jewish alchemists in medieval Egypt are being uncovered. Gabriele tells me that the alchemical texts he has identified are not generally theoretical or allegorical works but are principally practical in nature, that is, recipes and instructions for laboratory experiments, often adapted from Greek or Arabic sources according to the local availability of ingredients.

medieval alchemical manuscript
12th-13th c. Alchemical recipe for making silver – CUL MS Misc. 8.51, page 1. By permission of the Syndics of CUL.

Cambridge University Library is also home to some high-profile modern and early modern science collections, including the papers of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Could you speak more broadly about some of the early modern or modern recipe collections in your library?
We have numerous seventeenth-century and later commonplace books and scientific notebooks containing recipes and laboratory instructions. Newton’s papers include not just his mathematical and scientific thinking but also chemical and alchemical notes. The collection of Darwin’s papers at the UL encompasses all aspects of his professional and domestic life, including his wife Emma’s recipe book which has recently been edited and published.

Your library offers a number of prizes and fellowships that may be of interest to our readers, including those focused on book collecting and bibliography. Can you tell us a bit more about these?
The library appoints a Munby Fellow every year. This is a full-time 10-month position (October-July) open to a post-doctoral researcher of any nationality to carry out bibliographical research in any subject from any period. The only stipulation is that the proposed project must be based primarily on collections held in Cambridge libraries, whether print or manuscript. According to previous Fellows, one of the most exciting aspects of the position is being allowed to go ‘behind the scenes’ and browse the library’s Special Collections stacks as a member of library staff. The current Munby Fellow, Dr Anke Timmermann, is working on alchemical material but there is plenty of scope for other recipes researchers to investigate other aspects of our collections. The Fellowship is usually advertised in the summer.

Thanks, Suzanne, for chatting with me!

If you have any questions about the Cambridge University Library collections, please email Suzanne Paul. If you’d like to feature a library on the First Monday Library Chat, please email Michelle DiMeo.