Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hidden Gems of History

Recreation of a Roman Merchant Ship

I read an article on the BBC website this week about an interesting archaeological find off the coast of Tuscany. In 1974 a Roman shipwreck was discovered which dated to circa 135 B.C.  It was studied on and off during the 80s and 90s but it is only recently that one small find had been researched and analyzed.

Part of the finds on the wreck, which was a trading ship sailing from Greece around the Mediterranean, was a small tin box containing six tablets that researchers have found to be Roman pharmaceuticals.
Scientists have analyzed the compounds in the tablets and come to the conclusion that the medicine must have been used for treating eye infections. You can read the full article HERE.

Pozzino Tablets
credit: Giachi et al., PNAS
It is amazing that the tin container managed to keep these tablets intact despite being at the bottom of the sea for almost two thousand years. What is also interesting to me is that Romans had pharmaceutical pills just as we do today.

Most of the time, in movies or novels, the ancients are shown to be mixing disgustingly smelly brews of various compounds (some quite revolting) which they have to drink down while their faces twist up at the vileness of the mixture. Kind of like my morning drink of organic greens!
Tin Box from Pozzino Wreck

But! Here is an example of tablets in a little, ancient vitamin box. For the novelist, this is a great bit of detail that can be added to a story, especially if you are writing about an ancient doctor or healer, a sleuth investigating a poisoning, or even an addict of some sort. It doesn’t all have to be opium!

Little archaeological finds can be real gems in the rough of history.

There is another discovery that I have been reading about for a while that also shared the fate of being overlooked in a larger shipwreck find at first just because of its size and the mundaneness of its initial appearance, a lump of corroded metal.

Front of Antikythera Mechanism
Athens Archaeological Museum
The Antikythera Mechanism, as it is called, was found by sponge divers off the Greek island of Antikythera (between southern Peloponnese and Crete) over a hundred years ago. It was a part of a shipwreck that was said to have dated to first century B.C. The wreck also contained several statues dating to the 4th century B.C. which were, presumably, being taken back to Rome.

This find, when it was first discovered, had archaeologists stumped. Some thought it could be a sort of astrolabe or clock. In the last fifty years, researchers have made some new discoveries using modern x-ray technology.

Back of Antikythera Mechanism
Athens Archaeological Museum
It seems that the device is dedicated to astronomical phenomena and the cycles of the solar system, its gears and dials making it the first analogue ‘computer’. There is even a dial that tracks the cycle of the ancient Olympiads. Scientists say that nothing this advanced was created for the next thousand years! To read more about the Antikythera Mechanism Reasearch Project click HERE.

Back to the story teller in me. What an amazing tale this device would make! The Antikythera Mechanism has been linked to such names as Posidonius of Rhodes, Hipparchus and even Archimides but no one knows for sure. Whoever created this device was brilliant and ahead of his time and without a doubt, worthy of a story.

Is there any better combination than history and fiction? I think not.
Recreation of the
Antikythera Mechanism

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