Some excavations carried out in a shipwreck probably occurred between 140-130 BC, which was first discovered in 1974 off the coast of Tuscany, near the Etruscan city of Populonia, have resulted in the discovery of a wide collection of articles that were traded throughout the Mediterranean.
Inside the small ship (which is at most about 18 meters long and 3 meters wide) several pieces of archaeological interest have been found: Syrian crystal bowls, Pergamon ceramics, Rhodes wine amphoras, Ephesus lamps, coins, lead vessels and other consumer goods.
However, there is one discovery that stands out above the rest: a large number of medical equipment. Tin cylinders called pyxes (pixels), a stone mortar, an iron probe and a bronze vessel that was used in indentations or to apply hot air to different parts of the body, were some of the materials found inside a box of wood sealed with an iron lock.
Inside the tin pyx was found a rare archaeological treasure: five compressed discs, stacked on top of each other forming a small column. Despite having spent about 2,120 years on the seabed of the Gulf of Baratti, the pyxes had remained airtight and the pellets were still intact.
The first investigations that were carried out to reveal the materials of which the tablets were composed began in 2010. The analyzes revealed that there was a great variety of plant matter (carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion, cabbage, alfalfa, yarrow, hibiscus) in the pills. Scientists realized that all these plants were widely used at that time, with medicinal purposes. However, they were still not sure what ailments those tablets were intended to cure, or how they would have been taken by patients.
Now, a team of Italian researchers believe they have found the answer: the pills probably they were used as eyewash. The Latin word for eyewash is colirio, derived from the κoλλυρα, Greek word meaning «small round loaves«.
Archaeologists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, chemists from the University of Pisa and evolutionary biologists from the University of Florence have worked together analyzing all the components extracted from one of the tablets. Their studies revealed that the main inorganic element was zincIn fact, zinc compounds such as hydrozincite (zinc hydroxycarbonate) and calamine (zin carbonate) account for 75% of the tablet. Silicon and iron were the second and third inorganic elements that made up the tablet, with 9% and 5% respectively.
The organic components identified include starches (showing evidence of being cooked), animal lipids, vegetable lipids, beeswax, pine resin, 53 types of different amounts of pollen (mostly 40%, it was olive pollen) and charcoal. Some flax fibers were also discovered, although almost all concentrated on the outside of the sample, which seems to indicate that they could be the remains of cloth that was used to wrap the tablets.
Its high zinc content suggested that the pills had been devised for a type of eye medicine extraordinarily complex. Pliny the Elder and the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius, mentioned in their writings that zinc oxide was collected from the walls of the furnaces used during the smelting of copper and later used in medicine for the eyes and skin. The large, round shape of the tablets - about 3-4 centimeters in diameter and half a centimeter thick - also indicates their obvious use in eye treatments.
Experts have clarified that the way to apply the pills in the eyes it could have been by melting them, and the resulting ointment was finally smeared on the diseased eye.