Project Background and Scope
Over the last 20 years there has been a revival of interest in the Earths of the Aegean, the layered silicates, sulphur/sulphate minerals or metal oxides referred to in the texts of Galen, Dioscorides, Scribonius, Celsus and other authors of the Greco-Roman world. Over that period, Effie Photos-Jones, Allan Hall and their colleagues at Glasgow University have devoted considerable effort towards identifying the locations and chemical/ mineralogical composition of a number of these minerals, which were used as pigments, washing powders, mordants or medicines, They have also elucidated the methods of their enrichment, i.e. their conversion from raw materials to finished products. In the last three years, and with the significant contribution of colleagues in the UK (microbiology), Greece and Italy (geology/volcanology), the focus of research has turned to the testing of these minerals for their antimicrobial properties.
The Greco-Roman Antimicrobial Minerals Project (GR-AMs) (2016-2017) funded by the Wellcome Trust (Seed Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences) has now taken this research to a new level. Rather than focusing exclusively on the minerals, the project sets out to investigate minerals, minerals-rich waters and muds within specific natural and cultural landscapes (mines, quarries, workshops). In particular, it focuses on the intriguing and largely under-investigated relationship between minerals and microrganisms (bacteria, algae and fungi) which share the same habitat, be they volcanic vents, mine galleries or mudbaths; it sets out to investigate whether the antimicrobial activity of some G-R minerals or muds may derive from or be associated with the presence of microbial life.
The GR-AMs Project goes beyond issues of the 'therapeutic' landscape. It proposes to investigate perceptions about the nature, method or preparation and effect of medicines by ancient practitioners (doctors, healers, writers, priests) through documents and the archaeological evidence (material culture associated with burials). By examining the nature of the contents of vials with ‘medicines’, found in a number of 4th c BC- 2nd c AD burials in N Greece, it seeks to juxtapose the documentary and the archaeological evidence. Are there 'medical prescriptions' in teh ancient texts which reflect the contents of these vials? Furthermore, and in reference to burials, why did the deceased (doctors/healers) think it necessary to be buried with their ‘parexodoi’ (travelling medicine boxes) complete with inkpot?! Was it simply a declaration of profession and status, or was it perhaps a ‘special’ preparation to equip themselves for the journey to the afterlife?
The GR-AMs Project sets out to examine three groups of minerals (and their associated landscapes) deriving from: a) archaeological samples (the contents of medicine boxes); b) geological samples from four localities in Greece known to have been exploited in antiquity (see Landscapes): Melos (for alum), Pikrolimni (for natrum), Kea (for miltos) and Kyllene (for muds); and c) preparations of minerals combinations, in association with ingredients of botanical origin, aimed to simulate the prescriptions of Scribonius Largus, a doctor who lived in the 1st c AD. Scribonius was chosen as he is a near contemporary of some of the burials and because of the clarity of his narrative and the detail he offers in weights, dosage and method of preparation. The geological samples will be examined for the nature and presence of microorganisms (see culture and DNA sequencing). All three groups of samples will be examined for their geochemical, mineralogical and organic content, and their bioactivity (see Themes). By establishing both similarities and differences in the bioactivity of the samples within each of the groups, we aim to illuminate aspects of the antibacterial/antifungal properties of the Greco-Roman pharmacopoieia hitherto unexplored.
The Wellcome Trust funded GR-AMs Project focuses primarily on landscapes and artefactual evidence based in Greece. However, this web site also showcases parallel current work with the same research agenda. This includes: a project funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, based in Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Sicily and the ongoing work of our research team at Campi Flegrei, Naples, Italy; a second project, in collaboration with Professor Eva Valsami-Jones and Dr Christine Elgy, Birmingham University, focusing on the nanoproparticle properties of some of these medicinal minerals (Lemnian Earth and Kean miltos), part of NERC-FENAC funded project.