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Ancient first-aid kit discovered in shipwreck

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

They read like a list of ingredients that would be prescribed by a naturopathic practitioner: radish, yarrow, nasturtium, and hibiscus. But 2,000 years before herbal remedies became fashionable, they were being used to treat sailors who plied the Mediterranean in galleys and merchant ships.

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A wide array of herbs and plants has been found in a collection of remarkably well-preserved pills that was discovered in a primitive first-aid chest on a shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany, Italy.

The 50-foot-long coastal trading ship sank near the modern-day port of Piombino around 130 BC and was discovered in 1974, but only recently have scientists used DNA technology to analyze the contents of the tablets.

The ancient pharmaceuticals were preserved in around 140 watertight, tin-lined wooden vials that were stored in a timber medicine box. They were made from mashed-up bits of onions, carrots, celery, cabbage, alfalfa, chestnuts, and parsley and were probably used to soothe digestive troubles.

Scholars speculate that the presence of the medicine kit suggests that the ship had a doctor on board, or at least someone with a basic understanding of first aid. It was carrying ceramics, glassware, and amphorae of wine when it sank in 60 feet of water.