Sticky eyes or weeping wounds: trying to interpret the Pozzino tablets

Thousands of pharmacological and cosmetic recipes have come down to us from the Greek and Roman world. On the other hand, archaeological discoveries of ancient remedies are few and far between, and findings that can be analysed chemically and botanically are even rarer. Recently, ancient medicine made the news with the publication by a team of Italian scientists of the chemical analysis of remedies found aboard a Roman shipwreck – the Pozzino shipwreck, second century BCE [1]. The ship carried numerous pharmacological preparations, some of which are still in the process of being analysed (see here for more detail), and the publication focused on six roundish tablets preserved in a tin box. The scientific analysis revealed that the tablets contained 80% of inorganic materials, mainly zinc oxide and hematite, as well as starch, beeswax, animal and plant fats, pine resin, and other plant remains.

The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found
The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found

The authors of the article, referring themselves to ancient treatises on simple medicines (that is, treatises dealing with one pharmacological ingredient at a time), suggested that these tablets are eye remedies. A search (with the help of the electronic database of ancient Greek texts – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) through ancient collections of pharmacological recipes also shows that zinc oxide and hematatite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as in the following example, which is extracted form Galen’s collection of Medicines according to Places :(second century CE)

Sweet-smelling remedy of Syneros against long-lasting ailments [of the eyes]: it works against eye-discharge and lachrymal fistula: cleaned Cadmia [zinc oxide], 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 25 drams; Cyprian ash [i.e. copper], 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12. 774 Kühn)

This recipe, like many others, gives very little indication as to how the remedy should be prepared. I would suggest that all dry products should be crushed together in a mortar; diluted in wine and moulded into tablets. These should then be dried and dissolved in a liquid (here an egg) when needed. The modern reader will wince at the use of pepper in eye remedies, but making the eyes cry appears to have been one of the aims of ancient ophtalmological preparations, one of which was so unpleasant it was called ‘the thankless’.

Powdered zinc oxide

While zinc oxide and hematite stone would confirm an interpretation of the tablets as eye remedies, fats, resins and waxes are rarely listed in ancient ophtalmological recipes. To find an ancient recipe combining mineral ingredients, wax, fat and resin, one must look at formulae for cicatrization. The following example is attributed to Asclepiades (first century BCE) and preserved by Galen:

Asclepiades wrote the following concerning cicatrizing poultices…: burnt zinc oxide prepared with wine; roasted copper; of each 16 drams; wax, 80 drams; Colophonian resin, 8 ounces; sufficient amount of Italian wine. Crush the copper and zinc oxide with the wine, until the preparation has the consistency of wet cerate. Break the wax and resin into pieces, place in a ceramic vessel and add to these 1 litra of myrtle oil. Place on coals and stir continuously. When the ingredients have dissolved, remove from the fire and let the preparation cool down. Add the crushed ingredients, mix together, and use diluted with myrtle oil. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Types 2.14, 13.524 Kühn)

Experimentation would be required to determine the exact consistency of this remedy, but it is clear that it would have been much waxier than the Pozzino tablets. And here is the crux of the problem: it is impossible to find a recipe that lists all the ingredients entering the composition of these pills. And the same issue occurs every time scholars try to bring together written and archaeological sources in the field of ancient medicine. Some scholars will argue that many written recipes have been lost; others that every physician and pharmacologist in the ancient world had his own ‘secret’ recipes that were never written down. Whatever the case, the fascinating discoveries relating to the Pozzino tablets offer much opportunity for archaeologists, chemists, ethnopharmacologists and medical historians to collaborate and establish sound methodologies to bridge the gap between material and written pharmacological evidence.

[1] Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Antonella Romualdi, Erika Ribechini, Jeannette Jacqueline Lucejko, Maria Perla Colombini, and Marta Mariotti Lippi, ‘Ingredients of a 2,000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations’, PNAS 2013 110 (4), 1193-1196