Cold and Flu Season, Ancient Style

In honor of everyone (including myself) getting several different kinds of sick lately, I present to you, gentle readers, a very special blog post about illness in the ancient world. It’s knowledge of things like this that make me very thankful for the inventions of things like Neosporin and decongestants because quite honestly, I have NO idea how I would have survived in the ancient world. I’m one of those people whose world comes to a dramatic, screeching halt when sinus congestion is involved but at least I can rest (somewhat) easy that I can go purchase some quality decongestants at my local 24-hour CVS Pharmacy and get on with my day. I am also happy to live in a world free from dreaded conditions such as ‘The Vapors’, ‘Child-bed Sickness’ and injury by oxcart. I also don’t have to worry about my life being cut short by things like…paper cuts or most moisture-borne illnesses. Modern medicine is a wonderful thing indeed, but a good portion of it isn’t actually all that modern. With that, I will raise my glass of OJ to my immune system and share some of the rather nifty aspects of medicine in the ancient Mediterranean. Cheers!

I get the feeling that a lot of people assume that if a person had the misfortune of getting ill or injured in the BC times, they simply flipped a drachma and hoped for the best. This is so very not true! In fact, ancient medicine was (with a few exceptions) about on par with modern medicine in terms of diagnosis and treatment of various ailments. Let’s start with the Egyptians first, because they rock the hardest.

Paging Dr. Per, M.D.
There’s a great deal of Middle Egyptian medicine texts that go into a crazy amount of detail about almost every possible injury or illness a doctor could deal with. These texts describe conditions ranging from a basic cold to catastrophic battle injuries in incredible detail that were meant to act as a guide for other physicians should they encounter a patient with a similar condition. The texts all follow a similar format for reading convenience: description of the injury/condition; instructions for examining the patient and obtaining information; diagnosis and prognosis giving one of three possible outcomes–success, possible success or untreatable. If the condition is treatable, a treatment is described. There’s a whole mess of papyri with information on everything from proctology to snake bites to eye diseases to obstetrics. It’s things like this that really reinforce how on top of the medicinal world the Egyptians were and why they were acknowledged as the best doctors in the ancient world. They had specialists just like we do now and there’s record of an individual, a one Hesy-Ra, c. 2620 BC who specialized in dental problems in the court of Djoser. A super nifty fact about Egyptian surgery is that lots of people had limbs and things amputated for a variety of reasons. Once the person died, they were fitted with a symbolic prosthetic limb so that they would regain their lost limb in the afterlife! They also used prosthetics in the living world too, ranging from larger limbs to smaller things like toes. So, in conclusion, a good portion of Egyptian medicine was pretty spot-on with the diagnosis and treatment of things. It kind of makes up for the other portion that involved the use of dung for various prescriptions or aphrodisiacs…

Romans be crazy, yo
Well, yes, but probably no more so than anybody else. I suppose the main example of this would be some of the more well-known emperors who were fortunate enough to have their crazy documented and exaggerated, or perhaps just documented if they were actually that crazy! Like the Egyptians, the Romans were really into the mastering and progressing of the medical field. They had to deal with the same diseases that the Egyptians dealt with (arthritis, tuberculosis, polio, misc. battle injuries…) but this time they had some truly crazed people in charge. The Romans, being Romans and lovers of gossip, wrote everything down and now we get to read about the various goings-on in the imperial palace and scratch our heads because we don’t get the references or jokes. We do, however, get a very good description of some of the possible mental and physical illnesses that many Caesars suffered from. Por ejemplo, we know for a fact that (Gaius) Julius Caesar suffered from epilepsy. The ‘falling sickness’ was about as prevalent in the ancient world as it is now so most Romans were aware of this condition and while there was no treatment, they knew how to help someone in the middle of an epileptic episode. Roman doctors followed the teachings of Hippocrates and essentially combined Greek scientific methods with their religious beliefs to create a functioning hybrid. This was the sort of thing where treatment for an illness might include medicinal herbs and frequent prayer/offering to a deity of your choice, usually Aesculapius, the god of healing. Perhaps not the most effective treatment, but it got the job done most of the time. Romans were also really keen on public and preventive health which is one of the many reasons that they had ace plumbing and public baths. They realized that cleanliness helped keep disease at bay and lo and behold, their cleaner cities had less disease! Amazing! This also applied to the finer aspects of medicine, like making sure wounds were kept clean and tools were sterilized before use. The Romans also learned a large amount from the Egyptians once they brought Egypt into the Roman Empire. The great library at Alexandria provided them with thousands of years of knowledge about the human body which they happily took and expanded on. Romans still preferred Greek physicians and a few, such as Galen, went on to have a very successful career as a lecturing physician and treated several emperors. Like the Egyptians, not all aspects of their medicine were functioning with all the lights on. They too were guilty of silly practices like bleeding (Wait, why’d he die? We took all his bad blood out. Yeah, you took ALL the blood out, genius. *facepalm*) excessive use of leeches, and belief in things like the blood in a person’s body migrates south once a year…yes, really. Sometimes I wonder how people survived at all!

Excessively Silly Medicine
That last bit has inspired me to make a list of some of the ultra-silly medical beliefs and practices of the ancient world, particularly the ones that make you wonder how anyone managed to survive to old age.
-Blood migrates to the lower parts of the body once a year (my current favorite)
-Dropsy (one of my favorite ye olde ailments)
-Hysteria (sorry ladies…)
-Crocodile dung is an excellent aphrodisiac (no)
-Plagues are Apollo’s (or Sekhmet’s) way of telling you to act right
-Food can magically turn into phlegm in your stomach
-Belief in astrology is a mental illness (Roman, at least. No horoscopes for you!)
-Unwashed wool has many medicinal properties
-The nighttimes will make you sick (Shut the windows and cover your head!!! O.o)
-A hedgehog amulet can help cure your baldness. In related news, there are hedgies in Egypt.
-The body is governed by 4 humors. Illness is caused by the balance being off between these fluids.
-The Evil Eye is causing most of your problems in life

And with that, I think it’s time for me to take another dose of Robitussin and attempt to rid myself of this horrible allergy-induced cough. Boo to allergies!


Eeewww: The Gross and Squishy Side of Archaeology

Greetings once again, gentle readers! It has been far too long since my last post but fret not, for this time I return with what is sure to be a most excellent post. Today’s topic: Grossness in archaeology! It’s not always sand and deserts, folks. In fact, most locations have a good percentage of mud, raid and other moist conditions that can lead to all kinds of gnarly discoveries, particularly when humans are involved. I’ll just go in bullet point form as I remember some of the gnarlier discoveries that I’ve thankfully only read about and never had to experience first-hand 😛


Flat folks
One of the best places to find humans is bogs. Particularly the bogs of northern Europe. People were thrown into these bogs for a variety of reasons but the fun really started when the chemical makeup of these lovely peat pits met the chemical makeup of a former person. Needless to say, the acidity of the bogs preserved the person in their entirety (you could even check the stomach and see what they ate for their last meal. No, really. It’s all there.) but the pressure of all that peat ended up reducing said person to a much thinner version of their previous self. The result? A very flat but very preserved person.

This was a really cool yet really gnarly discovery I remember reading about when the news first broke. Iron Age digs are nothing new in England, nor are finding the remains of the people who lived at such Iron Age sites. What was groundbreaking was that one such remain of one such person ended up in the right place with the right amount of consistent moisture over say, 2,000 years and Rachel Cubitt of the York Archaeological Trust in England had the distinct pleasure of finding (and I quote) “…something move inside the cranium. Peering through the base of the skull, she spotted an unusual yellow substance,” Brains!! There was a small lump of yellowy something that turned out to be the remnants of a brain! AAAHHHH!! This has been triumphantly declared the oldest surviving human brain in Britain and has made me truly appreciate all the digs I’ve done in dry arid locations.

I’m actually going to skip over this part because I should mention ice mummies here, but truth be told I am legitimately terrified to death of ice mummies. I’m going to pretend they aren’t there and move on to the next one. If you want, you can Google or Wikipedia any of the failed Arctic or Antarctic expeditions and see where all of said expedition members are chilling (pun intended) today. They’re still there and it’s too creepy for words. Next!

Plague Victims
Ah, the plague. It decimated Europe and left us current archaeologists and forensic anthropologists with tons to do and find! Hooray! One silly bit o
f new plague information came in one of the recent issues of Archaeology magazine…and involved vampires. I’m trendy! Lookit that! But seriously folks, it was really funny. The deal with plague pits is that they were often re-opened to add more people to…in a very Monty Python ‘B out your dead!’ sort of way. The problems began when people saw the recently deceased in the early stages of decomposition and FREAKED OUT. In an effort to not gross myself out, I’ll try to keep the description as vague as possible and yet describe. When anything decomposes, stuff starts to decay (obviously) and things…move. Ligaments and muscles don’t do their jobs anymore so limbs and features and all that begin to move into different positions and liquids happen…which when seen by villagers not familiar with the ways of decay will lead them to believe all sorts of silly things. In this case, they thought the dead were actually undead and were trying to climb out of the plague pit and eat them all. As a villager, do you A) Run screaming through your village B) Move C) Shove a brick in the deceased’s mouth in an effort to keep them from rising from their earthly grave and infecting the rest of the village? If you chose C), you’re correct! Silly villagers.

Exploding People
Yes, another exciting situation that can be encountered when digging in some of the wetter parts of Europe. The exploding dead! Basically, if you find yourself at a nice dig in say, London, and you come across a wooden coffin that appears to have an inner lining of lead…RUN. No, seriously. Put the tools down, get everyone out of the site and call in the HazMat team to dispose of that shit properly because it could explode at any minute. See, the deal with lead-lined coffins is that they slow the rate of composition by keeping a lot of that pesky air out and thus keeping your recently deceased loved one in a less-icky state for longer. Apparently some folks end up staying Ziploc fresh for quite some time! I know this seems like a good idea at the time, but it’s really the worst thing you can do, especially for those poor archaeologists who may be digging up your relative at a much, much later date. The problem? The lead does it’s job a bit too well. It keeps the air out, but it also keeps everything IN. All the ickiness and gases that happen when people decompose in a normal situation just go out into the earth are trapped inside the lead box of doom and this creates pressure. This hermetically sealed pressure builds up along with all sorts of other liquid grossness and should someone be unlucky enough to accidentally and suddenly break this seal…well, I think you get the idea. Needless to say, whenever one of these coffins is encountered in the field or anywhere else, it’s a very good idea to put on that isolation suit and stand back.

Old Ones, demons, embodiements of Evil, unspeakable things…yes, these are just some of the many hazards
archaeologists must face when dealing with particularly old sites. Hot spots include Africa, the lands of former Assyria, Italy and any place that could be described as ‘lost’. This is why most archaeology degree programs (especially at the PhD level) require strong knowledge of at least one ancient language that is relevant to your field of study. You know, in case you have to recite something in Assyrian, Latin or Aramaic. That’s just how we roll.

Okay, not really. But the article was too funny to NOT include here.

Until next time, make sure to watch out for muddy locations, dust off your HazMat isolation suit and if you hear whispers from your test trench it may be a good idea to just walk away and find a new site. (teehee)