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Pharoah's Wine Jar Yields Medicinal Secrets

Egyptians may have been using herb-spiked drink for healing 5,000 years ago

MONDAY, April 13 (HealthDay News) -- The old adage, "take a glass of wine for thy stomach's sake," may have been heeded more than 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, archaeologists report.

Sophisticated analysis of residues found in wine jars left in the tomb of Scorpion 1, perhaps the first pharaoh, shows that the wine had been steeped in herbs including balm, coriander, mint and sage, according to a report published in this week's issue April 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That tomb dates back to 3150 B.C., explained lead researcher Patrick E. McGovern, a senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology.

"This is the earliest evidence we have of herbs being added to wine," McGovern said. "The earliest previous evidence we had was an alcoholic beverage from China from around 1200 B.C. That one had possibly wormwood or chrysanthemum in it, or a tree resin."

There is no solid proof that the herbs were added for medicinal purposes, but the evidence points in that direction, McGovern said. "It could have been for flavoring, but we have a later literary tradition in Egypt of herbs added for medicinal purposes," he said. "It gets recorded in a medical papyrus in 1800 B.C., and now this goes back more than a thousand years earlier."

McGovern has been working on material from the tomb for many years. Scorpion 1 was entombed in Abydos, then the religious capitol of Egypt, about 150 miles south of Cairo.

"His tomb is one of the most spectacular from the earliest period," McGovern said. "It contained about 700 wines jars as well as food and clothing."

McGovern had done previous analyses of the same wine jar. The new report was based on highly sophisticated studies of residues in the jar, using techniques such as liquid chromatography mass spectrometry and solid phase microextraction. The initial analysis showed the presence of tartaric acid, and the latest analysis found residues of herbs.

The tradition of adding herbs to wine seems to have continued throughout early Egyptian history. A more recent wine jar, found in southern Egypt and traced to the 4th to 6th centuries A.D., was also laced with pine resin and rosemary, the researchers noted.

Medicinal use of wine could be expected because of the well-established practice of medicine in ancient Egypt. A 2005 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was devoted entirely to medical practice in Egypt's Middle Kingdom, which flourished about 1900 B.C. The exhibit centered on ancient papyrus documents with instructions to physicians on wound healing, pain relief, and even the treatment of gynecologic or dental problems.

One expert was impressed with the new wine jar analysis.

"McGovern and co-workers have an amazing analytical accomplishment here," said Andrew L. Waterhouse, chair of the department of viticulture and enology (the study of wines) at the University of California, Davis. "These results further show that simple wine, as we know it, may not have been the most common beverage, but it was more often amended in many ways," he said.

Still, "it is difficult to know why the herbs were added," said Waterhouse, one of the world's leading authorities on ancient wines. "For medicinal purposes? To enhance the flavor? To cover up defects? All are possible."

More information

For more on wine and health, head to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Patrick E. McGovern, senior research scientist, University of Pennsylvania Museum Applied Science Center for Archaelogy, Philadlephia; Andrew L. Waterhouse, Ph.D., chair, department of viticulture and enology, University of California, Davis; April 13-17, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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