University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Penn Museum and Penn Medicine Researchers Collaborate To Test Promising Medicinal Compounds Once Employed by Our Ancestors

Egyptian Wine Jars14 APRIL 2009, PHILADELPHIA, PA—Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BCE), the most famous of ancient physicians, once noted: "Wine is fit for man in a wonderful way provided that it is taken with good sense by the sick as well as the healthy." Now new archaeochemical evidence, backed up by increasingly sophisticated scientific testing techniques, are pointing to a long history of medicinal remedies tried, tested, and sometimes lost, throughout millennia of human history—herbs, tree resins, and other organic materials dispensed by ancient fermented beverages like wine and beer.

A new round of discoveries, made by a team of researchers led by the University of Pennsylvania Museum's archaeochemist Dr. Patrick McGovern, provides the earliest direct chemical evidence for wine with organic medicinal additives. Testing was carried out on residues inside a jar from the tomb of one of the first pharaohs of Egypt, Scorpion I, excavated by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo and dated to ca. 3150 BCE. A later Egyptian amphora, excavated by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and dating from the 4th to 6th centuries AD from Gebel Adda in southern Egypt, also tested positive for wine with medicinal additives. Together, these results and others from other sites regionally and around the world, are laying the groundwork for ever more rigorous studies that detail what our ancestors imbibed to cure a variety of ailments, and perhaps, what they once knew may be “re-excavated” and applied to 21st century health and medicine.

The recent discoveries, the details of new scientific techniques used to identify tartaric acid, the marker compound for grape in the Middle East, and a variety of tree resins and herbal additives, and their wider implications for understanding how our early ancestors experimented with possible medicinal organic materials, was published on-line in the PNAS Early Edition (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences): Ancient Egyptian herbal wines Monday, 13 April 2009. Joining Dr. McGovern as paper authors are Armen Mirzoian, Scientific Services Division, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), US Treasury, Beltsville, MD, and Gretchen R. Hall, Research Associate, Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at the Penn Museum.

“With these tests, and our ability to use the latest, state-of-the-art chemical method--liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry-mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS)--we are able to push back confirmation of Egyptian and Levantine herbal medicine into the early, Predynastic period of Egyptian history, about 3150 BCE. Other very sensitive, recent methods have been used to identify the herbal and tree resin compounds in the wine,” noted Dr. McGovern.

“The all-important idea that we are taking away from this research and our growing body of analyses is that, by trial and error, humans may well have discovered natural remedies over the millennia, remedies which lay buried in our biomolecular archaeological findings. By analyzing ancient fermented beverages, which are ideal in dissolving plant alkaloids and other substances, we are able to re-discover some of these remedies,” he said.

Will any of these lost remedies be useful today? We may know soon. Dr. McGovern has begun collaborating with researchers at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center to answer some of these questions. The new project, “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery,” is currently testing compounds found in fermented beverages from China, including the earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world, dated to ca. 7000 BCE from Jiahu (see Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101.51: 17593-98). Research is focused on artesunate, a wormwood derivative, found in a rice wine from Henan province, dated to ca. 1200 BCE. McGovern’s colleagues on the project for discovering anti-cancer and other medicinal benefits from ancient remedies include Caryn Lerman, Scientific Director of the Abramson Cancer Center and Professor of Psychiatry, Wafik S El-Deiry, Professor of Medicine, Genetics and Pharmacology, and Melpo Christofidou-Solomidou, Research Associate Professor of Medicine.

A Senior Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. McGovern is author or editor of numerous books on archaeology and archaeological science, including, in 2003/2006, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Over the past two decades he has been a pioneer in the emerging field of biomolecular archaeology.

Photos: Top, A selection of wine jars from Scorpion I’s tomb at Abydos, laid out on the desert sand. (Photograph courtesy of German Institute of Archaeology, Cairo.) Bottom, A “wine cellar for eternity”: Peering down at some of 700 wine jars buried with Scorpion I, one of the first kings of Egypt, in his tomb (U-j ) at Abydos, about 3150 BC. The wine, laced with pine resin, figs and herbs (including balm, coriander, mint, sage and many more), was a true medicinal elixir for the afterlife. (Photograph courtesy of German Institute of Archaeology, Cairo.)

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at

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