Tuscan Shipwreck Gives Clues of Ancient Eye Treatment


A Roman-era medicinal compound (right) was found in this tin “pyxis.” Credit: G. Giachi et al., PNAS Early Edition (2013)

Archaeologists have retrieved medicinal tablets from a 2000-year old shipwreck, indicating that classical Mediterranean civilizations used sophisticated drugs.

The scientists published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences¹. The merchant ship Relitto del Pozzino sank off the coast of Italy in 130 BCE. Archaeological excavations in 1989 and 1990 yielded glass bowls, amphoras for carrying wine, lamps, tin and bronze vessels all likely to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean.

There were also some artifacts contained in a wooden chest that had rotted away. They include wooden vials, a cup possibly used for blood-letting, and other objects that could have been part of an ancient physician’s medical bag. They also discovered a small tin cylinder dubbed a pyxis that contained five tablets, 4 cm in diameter, which had been preserved from the elements by a tight-fitting lid. Italian scientists recently analyzed fragments from one tablet and found two zinc-rich materials, hydrozincite and smithsonite, as well as various animal and plant residues, pollen grains, beeswax and pine resin.

In their study, the scientists argue that the writings of the Pliny the Elder and the Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman and a Greek that are both recognized for their writings on medicinal materials, claim that these compounds were thought to be beneficial for the eyes and the skin. The tablets were originally thought to be vitamin pills sailors take on long voyages, but the researchers concluded that the tablets were directly applied on the top of the eyes.


  1. Giachi G., et al., PNAS 201216776, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1216776110 (2013)

[via ScienceNOW]

1 Comment on "Tuscan Shipwreck Gives Clues of Ancient Eye Treatment"

  1. Is there anything that can be used today that we can put directly on our eyes to improve eyesight?

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