Opiates found in 17th c. patients of Milan hospital

Analysis of the bones and preserved brain tissue of nine 17th century patients of the main hospital in Milan has revealed the presence of codeine, morphine, noscapine and papaverine, all derivates of the opium poppy. This is the first time the presence of Papaver somniferum has been detected in historical and archaeological human remains.

The Ospedale Maggiore, also known as Ca’ Granda, was founded in the mid-15th century by Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, to provide free health care for the poor. By the 16th century it was the city’s main hospital and held in high esteem throughout Europe for its innovative medical care, hygiene practices and treatment by specialized doctors. Some of those practices like the daily change of bed linens are givens today, but were revolutionary in the 1600s.

The hospital’s archives have been preserved from its founding in 1456 until it was closed in the 20th century. They provide a rich record of centuries of hospital administration and medical practices, including the medicines in its pharmacopeia. The records of the medications are incredibly detailed, listing plant and animal ingredients, how they were made and type of preparation.

Researchers seeking to verify the usage of drugs as described in the historical archives turned to another extraordinary record, this one archaeological: the hospital’s crypt. The Ospedale Maggiore had a dedicated burial crypt that was constantly expanded and used throughout the 17th century. An estimated 2.9 million bones lie in its 14 chambers today, the remains of more than 10,000 people who died at the hospital.

Bone and brain tissue trap traces of medicine that were in the body at time of death, so the research team took biological samples from the bones in the crypt and from brain tissue preserved by natural saponification (a process that converts organs into adipocere, in insoluble soap). Out of the nine samples of preserved brain tissue and eight cranial samples, toxicological analysis found alkaloids from different derivatives of the opium poppy in six of them, four from the brain tissue, two from the crania.

Specifically, noscapine, papaverine, and codeine (active principles of Papaver somniferum) were noted in preserved brain tissue, whereas in addition to these molecules, morphine was also detected in bone samples. The skeletons with traces of Papaver somniferum belonged to three females (including two young adults), one male, and one subadult of 11–12 years (for whom sex estimation could not be performed). In one case with positive toxicological findings, signs of ante-mortem trauma were seen on the left parietal bone with loss of bone tissue and possible trepanation. This could have been responsible for chronic inflammation and pain which may have been treated with the use of the Papaver somniferum plant at the hospital. […]

Papaver somniferum is present in the Ca’ Granda pharmacopoeia archives, showing not only that it was present in the pharmacy, but that it was also actively used as a medical treatment. Opium was listed in the apothecary’s archives as early as 1558 in form of laudanum or black poppy seeds; in the inventory list of 1604 the presence of white poppy seeds, black poppy seeds, poppy syrup and thebaic opium is reported, while in 1617 the hospital also introduced laudanum patches39. Additionally, according to the registries preserved at the former hospital, the doctors of the Modern Age, and in particular at the Ca’ Granda, used opium reduced to dried or juice pill (Capsulae sicca et succus capsularum inmaturarum) and as tincture of opium (Laudanum), as a narcotic, analgesic, astringent, coagulant, spasmolytic and antitussive. The findings presented in this research therefore confirm the archival data and implement our knowledge of the history of medicine in Milan.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.

Pompeii ceremonial chariot reconstructed

The exceptional ceremonial carriage discovered in the Pompeiian suburb of Civita Giuliana in 2021 has been restored and placed on public display for the first time.

While other carriages and carts have been found in Pompeii, this one is unique in Italian archaeology because it was a pilentum, a vehicle used by the elites for ceremonial occasions. Livy wrote that the senate granted Roman matrons the right to drive to sacred festivals and games in the pilentum in recognition of their donation of gold and jewelry to the treasury after Marcus Furius Camillus’ defeat of Veii in 396 B.C.

The chariot is adorned with bronze and silver medallions decorated with reliefs of explicit erotic scenes, cupids and female figures. Archaeologists believe it was used to transport a new bride, and perhaps her mother or mother-in-law, to her marital home after the wedding. It has therefore been dubbed the Bride’s Chariot.

Its condition and preservation make it one-of-a-kind too. Its iron wheel rims, bronze cladding, tin and silver decorations, the iron framework of the back seat, even the wood wheel hubs that were mineralized by the volcanic ash, survived. The carriage was painstakingly excavated by the experts from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, specialists in the preservation or wood as well as metals. At every stage, whenever they encountered a void they filled it with plaster and made a cast of the space decomposed organic material had once occupied. Therefore, the parts of the chariot that did not survive — the axle, the platform, the ropes, the vegetal decorations — were able to be recreated from the casts.

The carriage has now been reconstructed with modern materials like plexiglass and wood standing in for the lost parts. The surviving original elements have been integrated into the reconstruction.

The reconstructed pilentum is part of a new exhibition at the Baths of Diocletian that explores the our relationship with classical antiquity as seen through millennia of cultural, intellectual and artistic transmission. The plaster casts of two victims of Vesuvius found in the same luxury villa as the carriage are also part of the exhibition, as is the Hercules figure recently found at the Appia Antica Archaeological Park. The Instant and Eternity: Between Us and the Ancients exhibition runs from May 4th through July 30th.

Intaglio gemstones lost down drain found in Roman bathhouse

Thirty-six Roman carved gemstones lost in a bathhouse 2,000 years ago have been found in Carlisle, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Discovered in the drain of the high-status bathhouse used by the elite cavalry unit garrisoning the Roman fort of Uxelodunum on Hadrian’s Wall, they were lost in the 3rd century. The intaglio stones were embedded in signet rings, but the vegetable-based glues used in the settings were weakened by the heat and steam of the bathhouse. The gemstones fell out and were washed down the drain, probably before the owners even realized they were gone.

Carved from semi-precious stones like amethyst, jasper and carnelian, the intaglio stones range in size from 5mm to 16mm and were artfully engraved with tiny images of Roman deities including Venus, Ceres, Fortuna and Apollo. Surprisingly for a garrison town, there are very few deities with a military connection among the stones. They were found alongside more than 40 women’s hairpins and 105 glass beads, 35 of them believed to have come from a single necklace. Pottery, weapons and coins were also discovered in the bath drains.

Archaeologists first unearthed the remains of a Roman bathhouse in 2017 during an excavation at the proposed site of the Carlisle Cricket Club’s new floodproof pavilion. The bathhouse was built around 210 A.D. on a massive scale. The brick walls were three-and-a-half feet thick. Entire rooms complete with flooring, water pipes, the pilae stacks (tile risers) of the hypocaust system and many artifacts were discovered, along with a highly significant inscription dedicated to Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla. It is the largest Roman building ever discovered on Hadrian’s wall.

Tiles branded with the IMP stamp indicate the bath complex was built by the Imperial workshop when Septimus Severus was in the area for a 208 A.D. military campaign in Caledonia. He died in York just 40 miles away from Carlisle in 211. The bathhouse was built for the use of the elite of the Ala Petriana cavalry regiment. One thousand strong, it was the largest regiment on Hadrian’s Wall manning the largest fort, and therefore had the largest bath. The discovery of the gemstones with such a high proportion of non-military deities suggest elite women also utilized the bathhouse.

Restored medieval stained glass returns to Malvern Piory

Great Malvern Priory has the largest and most complete collection of 15th century stained glass of any parish church in England. This period was the apex of English stained glass craftsmanship, and the Malvern medieval windows are some of very few of these masterpieces to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Puritan iconoclasm of the Commonwealth period.

What religious conflict could not destroy centuries of water almost has. In 2015, experts at York Glaziers surveyed the medieval windows and determined they were in dire need of urgent intervention. The glass suffered extensive damage from moisture, both from the elements outside the priory and from condensation within which nourished algae growth as well. Because medieval glass had a high proportion of water-soluble potash, it is heavily susceptible to pitting that corrodes the painted surface. The corrosion products then stream down the glass and mix with dirt to form an ugly grey crust that then further erodes the painted glass.

The three windows in St. Anne’s Chapel have suffered the heaviest damage because it is the dampest part of the church. Installed between 1470 and 1490, they were originally part of the six high clerestory windows on the south side of the priory’s nave. The windows narrate events from Genesis and Exodus, starting with the Creation. The central window depicts the stories of Noah and Abraham. The third window features scenes from the stories of Isaac, Joseph and Moses.

During a restoration program of the 1860s, 33 surviving panels of the original 72 were moved from the nave to St. Anne’s Chapel. They were re-leaded but not cleaned in 1910. Today circular pits dot the back side of the windows and show as a mottled grey texture on the painted figures of the interior surface. Thick corrosion crusts obscure the brilliant colors and painted features. Their relocation to the chapel put the windows much closer to eye level, which makes the fine details and vivid colors far more accessible to the viewer, but it also makes the damage unmistakable to the naked eye.

In 2021, the Friends of Malvern Priory, a charitable organization dedicated to the support of the great church, were able to raise the funds to embark on a restoration of the first St. Anne’s Chapel window, the Creation Window. This window depicts key scenes from the first three chapters of Genesis, from the Creation narrative through the expulsion from Eden.

The first panel shows God as the great architect, holding a compass as he creates the universe. The next scene is the creation of the moon and stars, followed by the creation of birds and fish. Then comes the creation of animals. The creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden follows. In the next panel, God finds Adam and Eve covering their nakedness while the serpent uncoils from a tree trunk. The last scene shows an angel with a sword guarding the Eden as Adam and Eve are banished.

In order to fix the damage and prevent further deterioration in the long-term, the original windows were painstakingly removed from the stonework casing and transported to York for cleaning and repair. While conservators at York Glaziers worked on the fragile panes, cleaning, stabilizing and correcting damaged areas, new clear glass windows leaded with the same outlines of the medieval ones were installed on the exterior of the church.

This environmental protective glazing system is the solution to the degradation of the potash in the medieval glass. Once conserved, the medieval windows were reinstalled on a bronze frame 30-40 mm inside the window casing from the exterior protective glass. This small gap allows air to circulate between the two windows and protects the medieval glass from condensation inside the church and the rain, wind and sun outside of it.

Work began in November of 2022, and now the Creation Window is back in place, its color and detail restored as close to its original glory as possible.

Celtic scissors found in Munich grave

A pair of 2300-year-old scissors have been discovered in a Celtic cremation grave in Munich. The scissors are in exceptional condition, with the blades still sharp and shiny.

“A pair of scissors that are more than 2,300 years old and in a condition as if they could still be used today – that’s a very special find,” says Prof. Mathias Pfeil from the BLfD. “The fortunate fact that this tool was so excellently preserved is just as impressive as the craftsmanship of this object,” says Pfeil.

Archaeologists with the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments (BLfD) were called in when a disposal crew searching for unexploded World War II ordnance at a construction site in Munich’s Sendling borough encountered underground structures of suspected archaeological interest. The BLfD team found the tomb in the middle of a square structure formed by four wooden posts. It dates to the 3rd or 2nd century B.C., a period when the Celts cremated their dead and interred the cinerary remains in pits together with grave goods.

In addition to the scissors, this grave also contained a folded sword, the remains of a shield, a spearhead, a razor and a fibula. All of the grave goods are objects of impressive craftsmanship that attest to the high social status of the deceased.

The scissors were multifunctional devices. They could have been used to cut hair, textiles, even to sheer sheep. The sword was ritually destroyed by being heated and folded so it was unusable. This may have been a ritual offering or a “killing” of the sword so it could follow its owner into the afterlife.