Herbal archaeology roundup

In keeping with my love of plant medicine and old stuff, I decided to round up a little annotated bibliography of recent discoveries in the archaeology of herbal medicine. One thing I love about archaeology is that it doesn’t rely on written texts. There are no “Dark Ages” for archaeology. When an age is designated “dark,” it means that there is no writing (or very little) to illuminate what was going on at the time. But people continue to go about their daily business, in, around, through, on top of, under, and with material objects. This material culture can sometimes last millennia, allowing us to reconstruct some of what people were doing and what was important to them. It’s rare for organic material such as plant remains to be preserved for very long, but it does happen–and then we get a glimpse into activities like eating and healing, which may not have been committed to writing, but which nevertheless were essential to human life.

Winemaking in Egypt

Winemaking in Egypt

So without further ado, here’s some interesting stuff (the titles link to the respective articles):

Anticancer Activity Found in Herbal Additives of Ancient Alcoholic Beverages

Those of you who are into home fermentation or brewing know that just about anything can be fermented into booze, or added as a flavoring agent. Our ancient forbears knew this too, and used to add all sorts of herbs and resins as flavoring. For example, in the tomb of one of the earliest Egyptian kings, Narmer I (a.k.a. Scorpion) (buried ca. 3150 BC), archaeologists found 700 jars that once contained some 4500 liters of wine laced with terebinth resin, fresh grapes and figs, and mint, coriander, and sage (more here).

But were these herbs and resins only flavoring, or might they have used for their medicinal value as well? The University of Pennsylvania Museum has a Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health. (How cool is that?) They have been collaborating with UPenn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center on a project called “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery.” Results have shown that some herbs used in ancient alcoholic beverages from China and Egypt had cancer-fighting properties.

“Several compounds—specifically luteolin from sage and ursolic acid from thyme and other herbs attested in ancient Egyptian wine jars, ca 3150 BCE, and artemisinin and its synthetic derivative, artesunate, and isoscopolein from wormwood species (Artemisia)…showed promising and positive test tube activity against lung and colon cancers.”

Artesunate has also been used to combat malaria.

A Day in the Life of a Medieval Hospital

Paging Brother Cadfael… Little remains of what was once a major monastic hospital at Soutra, 17 miles from Edinburgh, Scotland. Archaeologists are investigating the traces of the hospital’s medical waste and have found remains of 230 medicinal plant species including juniper, henbane, and opium poppy. They have also found anthrax, tetanus, and intestinal parasites, giving us a glimpse into the diseases being treated at the hospital. (More info here.)

Archaeologists Uncover First Use of Spices in European Cuisine

Microscopic bits of plant silica (phytoliths) last a loooooooong time. When you cook plants, phytoliths get deposited on the inside of your pots for archaeologists to find thousands of years later. The cool thing is that many species of plant each have uniquely shaped phytoliths, making it easy to identify the plants people were eating, and whether they were wild or domestic.

Phytoliths of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) were recovered from two sites in Denmark and one in northern Germany, dating to 4100-3750 BC. Coriander and capers have been found in even older sites in the Near East. Unlike other pungent foods used at the time, such as onions, garlic mustard was deemed to have no nutritional value by the researchers, who therefore deem it a “spice.”

“Because garlic mustard seeds contain little if any starch, it’s not likely that the seeds were a source of nutrition, Saul says.”

Of course, many “spices” are medicinal as well as flavorful, not to mention the many magical properties attributed to herbs and spices, so while they may be lacking in “nutrition,” they still may have served multiple purposes. In fact, regarding garlic mustard specifically, the PFAF database says:

“The leaves and stems are antiasthmatic, antiscorbutic, antiseptic, deobstruent, diaphoretic, vermifuge and vulnerary. The leaves have been taken internally to promote sweating and to treat bronchitis, asthma and eczema. Externally, they have been used as an antiseptic poultice on ulcers etc, and are effective in relieving the itching caused by bites and stings. The leaves and stems are harvested before the plant comes into flower and they can be dried for later use. The roots are chopped up small and then heated in oil to make an ointment to rub on the chest in order to bring relief from bronchitis. The juice of the plant has an inhibitory effect on Bacillus pyocyaneum and on gram-negative bacteria of the typhoid-paratyphoid-enteritis group. The seeds have been used as a snuff to excite sneezing.”

An “Ethno-Archaeology” of the Anti-Malarial Herb Qinghao (Artemisia annua L.)

Remember how I said that artesunate, a chemical compound in wormwood, has been used to fight malaria? Another compound, artemisinin, has also been proven medicinal against malaria. Now scholars at Oxford and the University of Bradford are studying the medicinal use of Artemisia, known as qinghao, in ancient China. Medicinal use of qinghao is attested as early as 168 BC (it is mentioned in a text dating at least this far back), but as far as we know from written history, it was not used for intermittent (possibly malarial) fevers until the Song Dynasty, when the scale of wet rice cultivation increased dramatically. (Wet rice cultivation creates a lot of standing water where malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed.)

“The earliest indication to use qinghao for treating acute episodes of an intermittent fever is in a book by Ge Hong called Emergency Prescriptions kept in one’s Sleeve (Zhou hou bei  ji fang, chapter 3.16, ca 340 CE). The recommendation for treating so-called ‘intermittent fevers’ is: “Take a bunch of qing hao and two sheng (2 x 0.2 litres) of water for soaking it, wring it out to obtain the juice and ingest it in its entirety.” In other words, now that the antimalarial efficacy of Artemisinin has been scientifically researched and demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, one can impute into this ancient text, with hindsight, that Ge Hong recommended preparing a fresh juice of qinghao to combat acute malarial fever episodes (rather than a herbal tea, as currently recommended by Anamed).”

This is a case where the texts help us out a lot–if archaeologists find remains of wormwood, we may know it was being used medicinally, but not necessarily for what purposes. Because of the long tradition of medical writing in China, it is possible to see how wormwood’s uses changed over time–as well as how patterns of disease changed.Well, that is just a small sampling of research and results that I thought were interesting. I hope you find them so too!


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