PHILADELPHIA — Herbs have been detected in wine from the tomb of one of ancient Egypt's first rulers, many centuries before the civilization's known use of herbal remedies in alcoholic beverages, according to a study published Monday.
The findings from a wine jar dated to 5100 B.C. provide concrete evidence of ancient Egyptian organic medicine, which had only been ambiguously referred to in later papyrus documents, said Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, one of the researchers.
Tests on one of 700 jars buried with Scorpion I in his tomb at Abydos about 3100 B.C. confirmed that the vessel contained wine, according to the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The tests also detected tree resin, which was used as a preservative and for medical purposes, and other chemicals that make up various herbs.
"There were a lot of additives in this wine, and it fits very well with the later Egyptian pharmacology texts, the medical papyri that describe similar kinds of alcoholic beverages with herbs in them," McGovern said.
"So the assumption is that, although we're 1500 years before the earliest medical papyrus, in fact we're looking at medicinal wine," he said.
Medical papyri, texts which describe ancient Egyptian medical procedures and practices, show that resins and herbs were added to wine, beer and water for use as pain relievers, laxatives, diuretics, or aphrodisiacs. Many of the ingredients are still part of the herbal medical tradition of the country, researchers said.
Herbs from the eastern Mediterranean that fit the chemicals found in the wine are coriander, balm, mint, sage, senna, germander, savory and thyme, McGovern said.
The researchers cannot positively identify herb or herb combinations found because unique biomarkers for them have not been identified. And although prescriptions recorded on papyrus give a detailed picture of the ancient Egyptian drug cabinet, more than 80 percent of the 160 plant names listed have yet to be translated.
"Our contention is that plant additives, including various herbs and tree resins, were already being dispensed via alcoholic beverages millennia earlier" than temple inscriptions had indicated, the paper concludes.
Robert K. Ritner, Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, said Friday herbs and spices were also added for taste as well as health.
"I would not limit it specifically to medicinal uses; it certainly could have that, but there's no reason these wouldn't be spiced for flavor, like modern mulled wine," Ritner said.
McGovern said medical benefits of herbal wines seemed the most likely explanation. "You can't exclude the taste side of it, but we're at a time when people need to have some way to protect themselves from disease, cure themselves, and this was the primary way it was done," he said.