Lime: An Ancient Molecular Ingredient

Utku Can Topçu [1]

Lime or limestone (an abundant sedimentary rock) has found great use in construction throughout history. The usage of lime in construction dates back to some of the world’s earliest settlements. Even though some experts estimate the usage of lime in mortar started at least 10,000 years ago,[2] radiocarbon dating of lime mortar found in early Neolithic settlements in Nevali Çori (Turkey) would suggest an even earlier use, going back more than 20,000 years. The irony is that we cannot really date Nevali Çori that far back.[3] 

The “lime cycle” is a well-known property of lime that enables its use in construction. It is a three-step process[4]:

  1. Calcination: CaCO3(s) + Heat → CaO(s) + CO2(g)
  2. Hydration: CaO(s) + H2O(l) → Ca(OH)2(s) + Heat
  3. Carbonation: Ca(OH)2(aq) + CO2(g) → CaCO3(s) + H2O(g)

During the first step, calcium carbonate (in limestone) is heated to produce calcium oxide (burnt lime, or quicklime). The second step is the hydration of lime. Upon contact with water, burnt lime produces a strong base: calcium hydroxide (aptly named as slaked lime). The third and final step is carbonation. The slaked lime in water (limewater) comes into contact with carbon dioxide and reverts to its original form: calcium carbonate. This cycle has been essential in the invention of lime mortar. In order to produce the mortar, slaked lime in water is mixed with some aggregate (e.g., sand). Upon its application, the carbonation step is triggered by the atmospheric carbon dioxide to complete the cycle, forming calcium carbonate.[5]

While lime-based mortar must have been an integral part of building many kitchens throughout history, usage of lime in the kitchen has not been limited to construction alone. It has traditionally been used as a key ingredient in numerous food preparations. Out of many of its culinary uses, I will focus on two distinct recipes originating in two regions far away from each other.

Our first recipe utilizes a technique from ancient Mesoamerica: Nixtamalization. “Nixtamalización” is the name of the process that is used for the preparation of maize. Passed from generation to generation, this ancient technique is still used around the world today for various maize products, tortilla being a popular one. The process uses slaked lime or limestone in boiling water. The usage of lime not only softens the maize, so it can be ground easily to create a dough, but it is also helpful in terms of food safety as it destroys almost all the aflatoxin in mycotoxin-contaminated produce.[6] The treatment also uncovers additional nutritional value by making more essential amino acids available.[7] During their research into the food safety aspects of the traditional nixtamalization process, Dr. Doralinda Guzmán-de-Peña studied their family recipe. The recipe relayed here outlines the basic steps of the technique that has been used in Mexican homes traditionally[8]:

(1) Boil maize (1 kg) with water (3 l) and limestone or slaked lime (10 g) for 50 min; (2) Soak the mixture overnight (14 h); (3) Wash the cooked maize two or three times with water and (4) Ground nixtamal to obtain the dough (masa). Once the dough is ready, different dishes can be prepared: tortillas, tamales, atole, gorditas, etc.

Corn before and after Nixtamalization. Image Credits: Ll1324, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Corn before and after Nixtamalization. Image Credits: Ll1324, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Our second recipe is for Pekmez. It is, in essence, a molasses-like reduction of grape juice. Instead of grapes, it could also be made using other fruit rich in sugars. Traditionally, the version that uses grapes has been prepared in Turkey almost unchanged for ages.[9]
The earliest written accounts of pekmez date back to Divan-i Lugati’t-Türk, written in 1073.[10] Similar to how it is used in nixtamalization, lime is also used to make pekmez. The function of lime in this process is two-fold: 1) it reduces the acidity of the grape juice, 2) it also aids in clarifying the syrup by adsorbing impurities. The traditional recipe uses limestone soil called “pekmez toprağı” (pekmez soil) rich in calcium carbonate. Based on the oral tradition, many families – including mine – prepare it more or less using the same method. Here is a recipe relayed by Dr. Selma Birer from their paper on the dietary use of pekmez in Turkey[11]:

The grapes harvested from the vineyards are washed, have their stems separated, and juiced by being pressed in crushing mills. The excess water is evaporated by boiling. In order to prevent the acidity (sourness) of the grape juice, white soil called pekmez soil containing 90% or more CaCO3 (calcium carbonate) is used. Besides entirely or partially removing the juice’s acidity, the soil also helps clarify it. Pekmez soil is added in the ratio of 0.1-1 kg to 100 kg of juice. When the pekmez soil is added to the reduction, it is boiled for 5-10 minutes and then rested for clarification. pH change, temperature, and positively charged calcium ions play a role in this chemical process.

Even though archeological evidence has not yet been established about its history, the recipe for pekmez made from grapes is believed to have originated in prehistoric Anatolia. If we were to compare the two grape-based products, pekmez must have been even more critical for neolithic communities than wine, especially when we consider its function to preserve the nutritional value of the grapes.[12] 

Making of pekmez. From the family album of the author.
Making of pekmez. From the family album of the author.

Our ancestors must have understood and experimented with the lime cycle, enabling the recipes discussed above. The discovery of the lime cycle had its use both in culinary and construction applications. A hypothesis on how this could all have started comes via another ancient culinary practice: stone boiling.[13]
Stone boiling is the practice of transferring heat via heated stones instead of direct heat from open fire to the cooking vessel. Large stones would be heated in a fire or hearth and then placed in the cooking liquid. More stones would gradually be introduced in order to sustain the cooking process. According to this hypothesis, the discovery of the lime cycle could have “accidentally” been ignited by using limestones for this purpose. Limestones heated in a wood fire would get hot enough to start the calcination process described above. The cook would then naturally notice how these stones changed when heated and reacted with water. Being curious, they would also not have missed how it hardened over time and reverted to a stone-like material: reshaped limestone.[14]

Contemporary recipes for pekmez and nixtamalization do not call for heated limestones. However, archeological and experimental evidence suggests that using limestones for stone boiling can facilitate the cooking and start the required molecular reactions for nixtamalization.[15] It could be possible that the innovation of lime mortar in construction was not the only happy result of the accidental use of limestones for cooking. Due to lack of evidence suggesting otherwise (yet), we should accept that limestones found their initial use in construction. Nevertheless, we also need to appreciate their incidental use in cooking (through stone boiling). Observations on how it altered the cooking results must have followed naturally. It seems to me that the accident of using limestones for cooking might not only have resulted in the discovery of lime mortar in construction, but it could also have resulted in the development of pekmez and nixtamalization.

Utku Can Topçu is a software engineer living in Amsterdam. Next to his day job, he spends most of his time in his kitchen: reading, researching, and experimenting.

[1]  I would like to thank Dr. Inci Gunler for her invaluable feedback during the preparation of this text.
[2]  Dorn Carran, John Hughes, Alick Leslie, Craig Kennedy, “A Short History of the Use of Lime as a Building Material Beyond Europe and North America,” International Journal of Architectural Heritage, 6(2), (2012): 117-146.
[3]  S. Felder-Casagrande, H. G. Wiedemann, A. Reller, “The calcination of limestone – Studies on the past, the presence and the future of a crucial industrial process,” Journal of Thermal Analysis, 49(2), (1997): 971-978.
[4]  Carran, A Short History of the Use of Lime
[5] Ibid.
[6]  Doralinda Guzmán-de-Peña, “The Destruction of Aflatoxins in Corn by ‘Nixtamalización,’” in Mahendra Rai, Ajit Varma (eds.), Mycotoxins in Food, Feed and Bioweapons, (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, 2009), 39-49.
[7]  Emily C. Ellwood, M. Paul Scott, William D. Lipe, R. G. Matson, John G. Jones, “Stone-boiling maize with limestone: experimental results and implications for nutrition among SE Utah preceramic groups,”Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(1), (2013): 35-44.
[8]  Guzmán-de-Peña, “The Destruction of Aflatoxins in Corn by ‘Nixtamalización’”
[9]  Selma Birer, “Pekmezin Beslenmemizdeki Yeri ve Kullanılması,” Beslenme ve Diyet Dergisi, 12, (1982): 107-114.
[10]  Sevan Nişanyan, “pekmez,” in Nişanyan Sözlük Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojisi, (accessed on 16 January 2022)
[11]  Birer, “Pekmezin Beslenmemizdeki Yeri ve Kullanılması”
[12]  Ahmet Uhri, Anadolu Mutfak Kültürünün Kökenleri – Arkeolojik, Arkeometrik, Dilsel, Tarihsel ve Etnolojik Veriler Işığında (İstanbul: Ege, 2016), 46-51
[13]  Carran, “A Short History of the Use of Lime”
[14] Ibid.
[15]  Ellwood, “Stone-boiling maize with limestone: experimental results”

Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!


The recipe for animal sacrifice in ancient Greece

By Flint Dibble

We’re so used to modern, twenty-first century recipes. Everything is spelled out to a tee: ingredients, amounts, instructions. But, even if you look at earlier 20th century recipes, the detail is sparser. Techniques and amounts could be optional or elided over since certain knowledge was assumed. Ancient recipes, like those by the Roman chef Apicius, are even worse. There’s so much assumed knowledge, and we’re at such a cultural distance that it’s difficult to know exactly how a meal was prepared (though that doesn’t stop us from trying).

The recent online trend in recipes is recipe-blogging. For these, the detail can be excruciating. You need to read (or scroll) through a personal story about the recipe to get to the ingredients, amounts, and process. Understanding ancient Greek food from literary sources is like having access to the story part of a recipe-blog, without the recipe itself.

The recipe for animal sacrifice in ancient Greece is deceivingly simple: wrap a few bones in fat and burn them to a crisp. But, like many ancient recipes, the closer you examine it, the more questions you have. When you put together all our sources of evidence for ancient sacrifice – literary texts, artistic depictions, and ancient animal bones – the variability in ancient practice refreshes old research angles.

The epic poet Hesiod first described the reasons behind ancient animal sacrifice in a story about Prometheus tricking Zeus. Having chopped up an ox, he arranged two portions: 1) for mortals, Prometheus assigned the meat stuffed in the unappetizing stomach, and 2) while Zeus chose the white bones hidden beneath delicious, glistening fat. Hesiod ends this tale of deception with the offhand comment that ever since then, people have burned white bones for the gods (Hesiod Theogony 557).

But animal sacrifice was everywhere in ancient Greece. At every twist and turn of the story, Homeric heroes sacrificed mythical herds of big, beautiful bulls. In Book 3 of the Odyssey, the sacrificial recipe for a cow at the Palace of Nestor at Pylos is described in epic detail. After it was struck with an ax, and its blood collected in a bowl:

They butchered her, cut out the thighs, all in the proper place, and covered them with double fat and placed raw flesh upon them. The old king burned the pieces on the logs, and poured the bright red wine. The young men came to stand beside him holding five-pronged forks. They burned the thigh-bones thoroughly and tasted the entrails, then carved up the rest and skewered the meat on pointed spits, and roasted it (translation from Wilson 2017).

This scene is an exception. Most of the time, the gory details of sacrifice were assumed knowledge. That said, when mentioned, most often, the thigh-bones were mentioned as burned for the gods.

There are only a few exceptions to this pattern of thigh-bone burning in ancient Greek literature. In Aristophanes’ comedic play Peace (1055), the protagonist notes, after burning the thigh-bones of a sacrificed sheep, that the tail is curling. Scholars have connected this line with the many scenes of sacrificial curling tails painted on Athenian pots. Without this iconographic evidence, we wouldn’t have a clear context for this enigmatic mention in literature.

Pottery: red-figured stamnos depicting a an altar on a double plinth, on which two rows of sticks set crosswise, are burning, with a large hook or the horn of an ox and a square object in the midst of the flames; beside it stands a bearded, wreathed man, in a mantle, inscribed.
Athenian red-figure stamnos depicting a tail curling on a flaming altar (British Museum 1839,0214.68 CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

A second exception is in the epic myth, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (115-137). Hermes steals a herd of cattle from Apollo, and – to avoid being tracked – he marches them backwards to a cave. Wanting to make it up to the other gods, Hermes slaughters two of the cattle and distributes the meat into 12 portions. Cleaning up the mess, he burns the feet and heads of the cattle in the fire.

This scene is troublesome. There are no parallels in the artistic or literary record. To some scholars of ancient Greek religion, this is an inversion of a typical sacrifice. A literary construct of sorts. After all, the gods here were assigned the meaty human portion. Everything’s mixed up.

But this whole picture is turned on its head when you look at ancient trash: the food remains found in archaeological sites. For a long time, bits of animal bone were ignored in favor of the study of monumental temples or beautiful art. As a zooarchaeologist, I can tell you that when you start looking at ancient trash, the whole picture of ancient Greek animal sacrifice gets messy.

On the one hand, animal bone evidence does somewhat match patterns from literature and art. Most of our burned bones at sanctuaries and temples were thigh-bones. At a few temples, we even have examples of burned tails. More surprisingly, recent evidence shows several sites where the feet (and sometimes heads) of animals were burned. Maybe that scene in the Hymn to Hermes reveals actual ritual practice and not a literary inversion. 

Burned ankle joint
Burned ankle joint from Azoria, Crete. Photography by Jonida Martini.
Feet bones of sheep and goat.
Feet bones of sheep and goats from Azoria, Crete. Photograph by Jonida Martini.

On the other hand, the evidence is also more complicated. Most of the animal bones from ancient Greek sites aren’t burned, including many unburned thigh-bones found in many settlements. Whether this means most animals weren’t sacrificed or that some sacrifices didn’t involve bone burning is unclear.

Plus, even among a pit of burned bones, most of which match one of the patterns above, there are large numbers of exceptions: other anatomical parts that were burned. For example, bones in archaeological deposits from the Palace of Nestor at Pylos do provide evidence for the burning of cattle thigh-bones in feasting contexts, but burned in equal numbers were the jaws and upper-forelimbs (humerus).

The variability presented by this new source of evidence alongside the ambiguities of assumed knowledge means that we need to re-evaluate our evidence. While the burgeoning study of food trash won’t let us recreate all the details of a recipe, it’s an opportunity for us to look upon recipes in old texts with fresh eyes.


Flint Dibble is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow in the School of History, Archaeology, and Religion at Cardiff University. His project ZOOCRETE will be examining the role of animals and foodways in ancient Greece, with a specific focus on Crete. His research touches on topics of urbanism, climate change, religious ritual, and everyday life. Flint is also a public scholar with a strong commitment to sharing knowledge widely. He is active on Twitter (@FlintDibble) where he regularly writes Twitter threads with footnotes that present archaeology to the broader public.  

Conference Report: Traditions of Materia Medica: 300BCE–1300CE

By Sean Coughlin

On 16–18 June 2021, members of the research group A03 at the DFG-funded SFB 980 ‘Episteme in Motion’ and the Institute of Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität in Berlin (Sean Coughlin, Christine Salazar, Lisa Sherbakova, Kristiane Hasselmann, Philip van der Eijk) held a conference called Traditions of Materia Medica: 300 BCE–1300CE. Over the three days, 25 speakers and over 50 guests from around the world met remotely to share research on the history of theoretical pharmacology in the immediate vicinity of Galen of Pergamum.

One goal for the conference was practical: to bring each other up to speed on what we’ve been doing since the start of the pandemic. Another was programmatic: to test the hypothesis that Galen’s writings on pharmacology constitute a key moment in the history of theoretical pharmacology, one that brought about an acceleration of pharmacological research and reflection. Speakers explored the hypothesis from the perspective of history of medicine, philosophy and science, Egyptology, philology, botany, chemistry and lexicography, focusing on Galen’s sources, his own work, and the work of those who followed him.

Image courtesy of Sean Coughlin

Galen’s Immediate Predecessors (3rd c. BCE – 2nd c. CE)

Among studies of Galen’s immediate predecessors, we heard from edition and translation projects that are bringing Galen’s pharmacological antecedents more clearly into view. David Leith (Exeter), working on the fragments of Asclepiades of Bithynia, presented part of his work into the pharmacology of Asclepiades and his school, many of whom, like Julius Bassus and Niger, were authorities for Dioscorides and Galen. Irene Calà (LMU Munich), critically editing books 10 and 14 of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Books, presented recently identified fragments of recipes from the Herophileans, Andreas of Carystus and Apollonius Mys. Costanza de Martino (Humboldt) discussed the structure and sources of Philumenus’ On Poisonous Animals and Their Remedies, part of her project producing a new edition, translation and study of this work. And Amber Jacob (NYU) presented her project editing 1st–2nd c. CE demotic medical papyri from the Tebtunis temple library, which represent some of the few surviving sources for Egyptian medicine of the period and the intercultural exchange of Greek and Egyptian pharmacology.

Galen of Pergamum (mid-2nd – early 3rd c. CE)

We also had presentations from edition and translation projects of Galen’s pharmacological works. Caroline Petit (Warwick) introduced methodological questions raised by her work on “Rethinking Ancient Pharmacology” and her edition of Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs (Simples), which draws on Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Latin traditions. Caterina Manco (Paul Valéry – Montpellier) presented a study of Galen as reader of Dioscorides based on her forthcoming edition, translation and study of the botanical books of Galen’s Simples, books 6–8. And John Wilkins (Exeter) presented a comparative study of the ‘theoretical books’ (books 1–5) of Galen’s Simples, which he is translating for the Cambridge Galen Series, and their implementation in the ‘catalogue books’ (books 6–11).

Work on the history and philosophy of pharmacology was presented by P. N. Singer (Einstein Centre Chronoi), who discussed his work on epistemological and metaphysical issues raised by Galen’s notions of ‘changes through the whole substance’ and ‘tests’ of drugs. Simone Mucci (Warwick) presented on the relationship between imperial head-physicians (ἀρχιατροί) and antidotes in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods via Galen’s On Antidotes. And Krzysztof Jagusiak and Konrad Tadajczyk (Łódź) compared sitz-baths (ἐγκάθισμα) remedies in Galen’s work on Compound Drugs According to Kinds and in the pseudo-Galenica.

There were also two fascinating diachronic studies. Laurence Totelin (Cardiff) explored the nature, subject and variety of works called Euporista (“easily procured substances”) from their origins in Apollonius Mys via Galen to Theodorus Priscianus (4th c. CE). And Alessia Guardasole (CNRS – Sorbonne Université), who is working on an edition of Galen’s Compound Drugs According to Places, demonstrated how recipes change over time using the example of the diacodyon (διὰ κωδυῶν, “prepared with poppies”), from Galen to Theophanes Chrysobalantes (10th c. CE)

Galen’s Descendants (3rd – 13th c. CE)

Among scholars working on pharmacology after Galen, Petros Bouras-Vallianatos (Edinburgh) presented his work contextualizing ingredients from Asia in Galen, Late Antique and Byzantine medical works, exploring the reception of Arabic pharmacological lore into Greek and Latin sources. Anne Grons (Philipps-Universität Marburg) presented work on the systematization of ingredients in medical recipes preserved in Coptic pharmacological texts from the 4th–11th c. CE.

Matteo Martelli (Bologna) explored dry medicines, dyes, and alchemical xeria via the etymology of the term elixir, beginning with Arabic and Latin traditions and taking us back to their antecedents in Greco-Egyptian alchemy. Maciej Kokoszko (Łódź) looked at recipes for sweet sauces from Anthimus’ On the Observance of Foods and their pharmacological roots. Zofia Rzeźnicka(Łódź) proposed a theoretical basis for the ingredients of several recipes for peelings and scrubs in Aetius of Amida. And Lucia Raggetti (Bologna) discussed the creative weaving of ancient pharmacological, medical, and philosophical works (Hermes, Galen, Dioscorides, Aristotle) with technical and artisanal knowledge in Malmuk, Cairo of the 7th H/13th CE in the work of Kaylak Qabǧāqī.

Experimental, Lexicographical and Botanical Approaches

We also heard from several groups taking broadly empirical approaches to the history of pharmacology. On the chemical and biochemical side, Manuela Marai (Warwick) presented her work comparing the activity of drug combinations found in Galenic recipes to that of the individual components. Effie Photos-Jones (Glasgow) presented surprising results from the experimental work of her Wellcome Trust-funded group, “Greco-Roman Antimicrobial Minerals,” on the chemical and biological activity of Greco-Roman mineral preparations (lithargyros, psimythion, molybdos). Members of the ERC-project Alchemeast at Bologna, Matteo Martelli and Lucia Raggetti, included their work on replications of ancient alchemical recipes. And Sean Coughlin(Humboldt, Czech Academy of Sciences) introduced a new interdisciplinary research group funded by the Czech Science Foundation, “Alchemies of Scent,” that will replicate the methods of Greco-Egyptian perfumery using analytical chemistry and Greco-Egyptian literary and archaeological sources.

On the botanical and lexicographical side, Maximilian Haars (Philipps-Universität Marburg) gave an overview of his new DFG-funded project producing an encyclopedia of all medicinal plants and herbal drugs in the Galenic corpus—approximately 1,500 entries. And Barbara Zipser (Royal Holloway University London) and Andreas Lardos (Zurich) presented a new interdisciplinary methodology from their project “Plants and minerals in Byzantine popular pharmacy: a new multidisciplinary approach” for the identification of medicinal plants that can provide a more solid and replicable starting point for pharmacological screening.

Hopefully, this brief overview conveys some sense of the variety of research projects exploring Galenic pharmacology and its immediate predecessors and descendants. For those interested, abstracts for the talks are available here.