Roman Medicine

Medical texts from the days of ancient Greece and Rome were consulted by physicians in the western world for hundreds of years, well into the Middle Ages.  Now examination of medicine chests found on a long-lost shipwreck is giving us a more tangible glimpse of how the ancients actually practiced medicine.

The wooden boxes were found on a ship that sank off the coast of Tuscany around 130 B.C.  They contain pills made of vegetables, herbs, plants, nuts, and clay, as well as a mortar and pestle and other devices that suggest that a doctor was on board.  The pills were kept in vials that were so well sealed they have been preserved for more than 2,000 years and can now be tested using DNA sequencing technology.  Experts believe the pills were used to treat sailors for dysentery and diarrhea.

The technology of ancient civilizations — which were able to seal containers against the intrusion of sea water for two millennia — continues to amaze, and one wonders what other discoveries may be lurking under the ocean waters, waiting to be discovered.  And, the modern world being what it is, don’t be surprised to see the “all-natural Roman cure” for diarrhea coming soon to an herbal medicine store and a late-night TV screen near you.

Outdoing Indiana Jones

Modern technology is allowing for amazing advances in, of all things, the discovery of sites and artifacts of ancient civilizations.  The most recent example is found in Egypt, where the new field of “space archaeology” — which seems oxymoronic — has produced the discovery of 17 lost pyramids and thousands of previously undiscovered tombs and settlements.

The space archaeologists use space telescopes, powerful cameras, and infra-red imaging to identify materials buried beneath the surface.  Ancient Egyptians built using mud brick, which has a different density than the surrounding soil and allows the outlines of buried structures to be detected.  One use of the technology was applied to make discoveries at the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, which will forever be recalled by fans of Indiana Jones and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as the home of the Well of Souls and the Ark of the Covenant.

You don’t need a bullwhip, a well-worn hat, and the ability to take a punch to be an archaeologist — a satellite, a camera, and a creative approach to using new technology will do just fine.  And what is really exciting about this development is the potential uses of this technology in Babylon, and Persia, and other sites in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere.  Who knows what other evidence of ancient civilizations will be found buried beneath the sands?

As Timeless As Wine (Or Human Behavior)

Archaeologists have uncovered the world’s oldest known wine press in southern Armenia.  The wine press was found in a cave and is being dated to 4,000 B.C. — 6,000 years ago.  In short, the wine press is so old that it predates even the rise of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

The archaeologists believe that the wine press produced a dry red vintage using some kind of foot-stomping method.  They also speculate that the wine was a special vintage used in a burial ritual by a complex ancient society.

I think the key facts in the article suggest a different back story.  Those key facts are (1) a cave, (2) wine, and (3) the world’s oldest discarded leather shoe, which also was found in the same cave.  Do those facts sound to you like the ingredients of a burial ritual?  Or, do those signs point to a secret drinking place where the lazy ne’er-do-wells of the tribe could escape to kick off their shoes, stomp a few grapes, guzzle homemade hooch, and enjoy some drunken hilarity with their buddies away from the tribal chief, the high priest, and angry spouses?  To confirm this theory, the archaeologists need only start looking for dice, chicken bones, and signs of ancient graffiti in the vicinity.

The wine press may be 6,000 years old, but human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia.

The Humble Comb

Today, after I woke up and got out of bed, and as I dragged my comb across my head, I thought briefly of the humble comb.

An early Egyptian comb

The earliest tools made by human ancestors go back hundreds of thousands of years.  Not surprisingly, they seem to be things likes axe heads, knives, and other implements that help with hunting, killing, and skinning animals; you would expect the struggling early humans to focus on getting food and making it edible.

Combs, however, are distinctly different.  They aren’t essential to survival and seem to be a product of a more advanced civilization, where people were more attentive to their appearance and had the leisure time to do something about it.  Perhaps they gazed into a pool of water, considered their reflection, and thought:  “My hair looks like crap!”  They dragged their fingers through their hair and noticed a slight improvement, and then they realized that just as tools helped with the killing and gutting of prey, so tools could help to make their hair look better.  After some experimentation, the basic design of the comb — with its rows of tines working to tame and untangle unruly hair — was devised.

Ancient combs from Qumran

I don’t think archaeologists know exactly when combs were first invented.  I’ve seen combs from ancient Egypt that were created more than 5000 years ago, and combs apparently spread around the world after the first century B.C. The combs shown on these links look pretty similar to the combs available today.  Substitute antler bone, ivory, or hard wood for plastic, and there’s really not much difference.  The basic design of the comb therefore seems to have pretty much stayed unchanged for 7,000 years.  Is there any other man-made tool or device that has been used, continuously and without material change, for as long as the humble comb?