An ancient remedy: Bitter herbs and sweet wine

Jars suggest early Egyptians mixed medicinal plants into alcoholic beverage

For Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down. For ancient Egyptians, wine did the job.

An ancient wine jar found in Gebel Adda in southern Egypt dates from between A.D. 300 and 500. New chemical analyses of residue found inside the jar show that the wine may have been laced with rosemary and pine resin for medicinal purposes. Courtesy of W. Pratt, with permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © RO

New chemical analyses of ancient wine jars suggest that Egyptians mixed herbs into wine to create medicinal remedies, researchers report. The findings, published online April 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could be the earliest direct evidence for wine containing medicinal substances, the scientists say.

Literary evidence of such drinks had already been brought to light. Ancient Egyptian papyri dating from about 1850 B.C. contained recipes for concoctions to treat a variety of ailments, with many of the recipes involving wine mixed with herbs. “Alcoholic beverages were a good way to get the herbs into solution,” says study coauthor Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But scientists had not found remnants of any such health-preserving beverages until now.

“This is really exciting research,” comments Willeke Wendrich of the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s important that more of this kind of analysis is done.”

McGovern and his colleagues analyzed two ancient Egyptian wine jars. One of the jars dates from circa 3150 B.C. and was found in a tomb in Abydos in upper Egypt. The tomb belonged to one of the first pharaohs, Scorpion I. The other jar dates from between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. and was found in the Gebel Adda site in southern Egypt. “We deliberately chose samples from an early and a late time point in ancient Egyptian culture,” McGovern says.

To check that the jars once contained wine, the researchers used a technique called liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry that can detect chemical signatures to analyze traces of residue found inside the jars. The team found that the residue contained tartaric acid, a strong indicator that the jars had contained wine.

Next, the researchers used another technique called solid phase microextraction to investigate the chemistry of the residue. The residue contained several compounds found in plants. “Herbs can account for the greatest number of the compounds,” McGovern says. “It’s the simplest, most straightforward explanation.”

The Abydos jar contained wine mixed with coriander, mint, sage and pine tree resin, and the Gebel Adda jar had wine laced with pine resin and rosemary, the researchers suggest. Although these herb and wine combinations don’t feature in any of the recipes found so far, the new research provides the earliest evidence that herbs were dispensed in alcoholic beverages, the scientists say.

But the chemical compounds found in the residue could also be found in other plants. “It’s difficult to translate molecules back to a specific food,” Wendrich contends. “It’s not possible to make conclusions unless you found very specific markers for each herb.”

Further refinements of analytical techniques will yield more information about the sources of the plant compounds discovered in the jars, McGovern says.

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