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Rare Discovery in 2,000 Year-Old Shipwreck Provides Clues About Early Pharmacology

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An ancient shipwreck revealed secrets from the past: some ancient civilizations used zinc and beeswax as eye medicine. The Roman shipwreck is over 2,000 years old and scientists say that the discovery helps to uncover the history and development of human medicine.

The shipwreck was discovered near the remains of the Etruscan city of Populonia, which was a major shipping port along the sea trade routes between the east and west across the Mediterranean Sea. Among other items, archaeologists discovered flat, gray tablets and through an analysis of the chemical composition of some of the broken tablets, found that they were loaded with zinc and beeswax. The archaeologists say it is incredibly rare to find medical artifacts, especially artifacts with an intact chemical composition. The tablets included starch, pine resin, beeswax and a mix of plant- and animal-derived fats, along with zinc.

The tablets offer a rare glimpse into the history and evolution of medicine and pharmacology and date back to between 140-130 B.C. The archaeologists also note that because of the increased focus in modern medicine on natural compounds, the discovery could lend a hand in the development of homeopathic remedies.