A team of Italian researchers studying the contents of a small tin found aboard the wreck of a second century B.C. cargo ship claim its contents are pills meant to cure eye or skin ailments. In their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team says that some of the ingredients found in the pills mirror those still used today to treat such ailments.
The tin, known as a pyxis was found after excavation of the wreck Relitto del Pozzino between 1989-90. The sunken ship was first discovered in 1974 off the Tuscany coast and is believed to have met its fate in 140 B.C. The pyxis was found among other artifacts (a cup for blood-letting, vials, etc.) that led researchers to believe it belonged to a physician. Inside were small pills, each approximately 4 centimeters across and 1 centimeter thick. Careful analysis in the lab showed that the pills mostly contained zinc – approximately 75 percent – in the form of smithsonite. Other ingredients included animal and plant lipids, pine resin and starch. Because of the nature of their content, the researchers believe the pills were meant to be crushed and dissolved in water and then used as a topical agent to treat eye and skin problems.