The composition of some Roman medicines: evidence for Pliny’s Punic wax?

  • R. J. Stacey
Original Paper


Residues from medicine containers in the collections of the British Museum have been investigated as part of a wider programme of scientific work on Roman surgical instruments. The cylindrical bronze containers are often described as instrument cases, but some contain materia medica, ranging from extensive extant remains of ancient preparations to possible minor deposits on the interior surfaces of the containers. Samples from seven residues have been analysed by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to identify lipid, resin and carbohydrate components and by X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy to characterise inorganic materials. The results have provided evidence for ointments and powders or pills consistent with a medical purpose. The ingredients identified include beeswax, fat, conifer resin and gum-derived sugars, plus elemental carbon and lead and zinc salts. Particularly significant were the varied compositions of residues from four sections of a multi-compartment container. In one of these compartments, the beeswax seems to have been prepared as the ‘Punic wax’ described by Pliny. Experimental preparation of Punic wax following Pliny’s method was undertaken in the laboratory and the product analysed to compare with the ointment residues. This paper discusses the GC-MS results of both the experimental material and the archaeological residues and their significance for the interpretation of the past intended applications of the medicines and the use of the containers.


Medicine Archaeology Beeswax Punic wax Residues Saponification GC-MS XRF 



I am indebted to colleagues who contributed to the analytical work on these residues, especially Duncan Hook for assistance with XRF analysis and Janet Ambers who carried out the Raman spectroscopy. Access to residue inside the fourth section of the multi-compartment cylinder was made possible by Marilyn Hockey’s careful conservation work to open this compartment. Susan La Niece made available her earlier XRD analysis of the material and carried out the radiography of the multi-compartment cylinder. Special thanks are due to Ralph Jackson for instigating the investigation, for his enthusiastic interest in and discussions of the findings. I am grateful to all colleagues who read and commented on the draft manuscript and for the helpful suggestions of three anonymous reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, The British MuseumLondonUK

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