Papyrus Reveals Ancient Egyptian Hangover Cure

The key ingredient listed to treat the hangover wasn't exactly known for its medical properties.

Trying to ease a bad hangover? Wearing a necklace made from the leaves of a shrub called Alexandrian laurel would do the job, according to a newly translated Egyptian papyrus.

The "drunken headache cure" appears in a 1,900-year-old text written in Greek and was discovered during the ongoing effort to translate more than half a million scraps of papyrus known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Housed at Oxford University's Sackler Library, the enormous collection of texts contains lost gospels, works by Sophocles and other Greek authors, public and personal records and medical treatises dating from the first century AD to the sixth century A.D.

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The key ingredient listed to treat the hangover - the slow growing evergreen Danae racemosa - wasn't exactly known for its medical properties.

The plant was used in Greek and Roman times to crown distinguished athletes, orators and poets.

Whether stringing its leaves and wearing the strand around the neck had any effect to relieve headaches in alcohol victims isn't known.

The improbable hangover remedy is part of a newly published volume containing about 30 medical papyri found at Oxyrhynchus. The documents were translated by researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London.

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The new book, the 80th to be released during the century-old ongoing translation effort, represents "the largest single collection of medical papyri to be published," according to an introductory note by Vivian Nutton, a professor at University College London.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri were unearthed in 1898 from a Greco-Roman dump in the ancient Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, about 100 miles south of Cairo.

The city flourished after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., remained prominent in Roman and Byzantine times, but began to decline after the Arab conquest in 641 A.D.

The collection is the result of the Oxyrhynchus inhabitants's habit of throwing their trash in the desert. The dumps remained covered by sand until 1896, when Oxford archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt began excavating the area.

Apart from the hangover remedy, the latest batch of newly translated papyri include complex treatments for hemorrhoids, toothache, and various eye conditions, Live Science reported.

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One recipe for treating rheum, a mucus discharged from the eyes, uses a concoction of copper flakes, antimony oxide, white lead, washed lead dross, starch, dried roses, rain water, gum Arabic, poppy juice and a plant called Celtic spikenard, known today to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.

A papyrus fragment also contains a gruesome description of eye surgery, providing a first person account of an everted eyelid (turned inside out) treatment. Translated by Cambridge scholar Marguerite Hirt, the text reads:

"The eye ... I began ... by the temple ... the other from the temple ... to remove with a small round-bladed knife ... the edge of the eyelid from outside ... from within until I scooped out."

Image: Alexandrian laurel. Credit: Lazaregagnidze/Wikimrdia Commons

Using a powerful X-ray procedure, researchers led by Vito Mocella, a physicist from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, have for the first time been able to read letters hidden inside two carbonized papyri without unrolling them. Until now it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques.

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The papyrus scroll was reduced to lumps of coal by the 750-degree Fahrenheit cloud that wrapped the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was excavated 260 years ago from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a magnificent seafront estate thought to be owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar's father-in-law.

The Villa of the Papyri was the largest Roman villa ever found. It was recreated in the 1970s in California by Paul Getty, whose art museum in Malibu is a replica of how the villa is thought to have looked. It stretched down toward the sea on four terraces. The villa housed one of the finest libraries of antiquity. The scrolls consisted mainly of Epicurean philosophical texts and were carefully stored in shelves covering the walls.

During the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the scrolls, as well as the Herculaneum citizens, were burned by a furnace-like blast of hot gas. The tremendous pressure of the pyroclastic material compressed the scrolls and even deformed some of the villa's walls.

Paradoxically preserved forever (Herculaneum's seaside air would have destroyed them) the scrolls now consist of the only library items known to have survived the ancient world. Out of the 1,785 scrolls discovered during the 18th century excavation, only 585 had been completely unrolled using a 18th century mechanical method while 209 have been partly unrolled. About 400 have never been unrolled and 450 are so difficult to read that their text remains unknown.

Until now, it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques. To overcome the problem, Mocella and colleagues turned to X-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT). The technology takes advantage of subtle differences in the way X-rays pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink. The team examined two scrolls (one unrolled and the other still rolled-up) which were handed to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift in 1802 and now belong to the collection of the Institut de France. On the unrolled scroll the researchers identified two words written in several superposed layers of papyrus. On one of the hidden layers, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE, possibly meaning "would fall," could be read, while another sequence, EIPOI, meaning "would say," was spotted in the following line.

But the main object in the investigation was a carbonized, sausage-shaped, rolled-up papyrus. During the eruption, the scroll suffered a devastating shock, which deformed its internal spiral structure, as this rendition of the reconstructed papyrus shows. The letters were distorted, making data analysis a real challenge.

Nevertheless, the scanner was able to pick out all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. The researchers not only identified some words such as "deny," "for," "the," "to move," but also pinpointed a specific handwriting style, which led to the likely author, the Greek philosopher and poet Philodemus.

"While our first experiments have revealed only small segments of writing and are in need of further refinement, we note that once the XPCT technique has been tuned, the imaging of an entire papyrus scroll should not require more than a few hours of synchrotron beam time," the researchers said. New experiments are scheduled for the spring. The researchers also hope to determine the chemical composition of the ink, which, according to ancient sources, was made of water, smoke residues and gum acacia.

Read the full story here.