More Underwater Finds of Roman Medical Equipment
Gibbins, David, Antiquity
In 1988 an account was published in this journal of the discovery of a surgeon's instrument kit (instrumentarium) in the wreck of a Roman merchantman of c. AD 200 near Syracuse, Sicily (Gibbins 1988; 1989; 1991; Gibbins & Parker 1986). As well as a possible wooden bandaging-stick, the kit comprised three copper-alloy scalpel handles, two with long, slender dissectors suitable for ophthalmic surgery [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and the third attached to a corroded iron instrument which may have been a solid cataract needle or cautery. This kit, possibly the belongings of a travelling eye-surgeon, was the first certain find of surgical instruments from a Roman wreck, and one of few 'functional' instrumentaria to complement the many symbolic groups known from doctors' graves mainly of the 1st-3rd-century AD (Kunzl 1983; Jackson 1988; 1990). The 1988 report noted a few other underwater finds of uncertain attribution. Since then there have been several other definite wreck finds, of medicaments as well as instruments, which merit attention not only for their great intrinsic interest but also because they provide valuable comparanda for the Plemmirio material.
An important find has been a superbly preserved instrumentarium from Montbellet (Saone-et-Loire, France), comprising a tubular copper-alloy probe case with five slender instruments, three of which are needles and two needle-syringes (Feugere et al. 1985; Jackson 1990: 8). It was dredged intact from the river Saone, and may have been lost from a barge or ferry, or be from the wreck of a river vessel. Like the Plemmirio group, this seems to be a rare example of a small, specialist kit, for eye-surgery. 'Portable' sets of this nature are recommended in the Hippocratic Corpus (Decorum viii: 10-13) for use away from the surgery; an example of a general-purpose rather than a specialist kit is the instrumentarium from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii, comprising four scalpels, two forceps, six probes, two needles and two hooks (Jackson 1988: 116).
The only likely parallel of an instrumentarium in the wreck of a sea-going ship is a group of four probe-like instruments from the Pontine Islands (central Tyrrhenian Italy) first published by Gianfrotta (1986: 215-16), and noted, with reservations about the context, in earlier discussion of the Plemmirio finds (Gibbins 1989: 14). It now looks probable that they come from the site of the mid-1st-century BC wreck of le Grotticelle (Parker 486), whose much-looted cargo included Italian Dressel 1 wine amphoras and bronze and bone furniture fittings. If the probes are indeed surgical instruments from this wreck they are among the oldest examples from antiquity (cf. Jackson 1990); more details of the context are needed in order to be certain that these finds properly belong to the wreck.
The most remarkable discovery since the Plemmirio excavation has been the extraordinary 'apothecary's chest' from the wreck of c. 120-80 BC at Pozzino (Parker 898), in the bay of Baratti near Populonia (north Tyrrhenian Italy). The wreck has been under investigation since 1982, but intensive excavations only began in 1989; early information was summarised in the third Plemmirio interim report (Gibbins 1991: 241, note 1), since when a more detailed publication has become available (Ciabatti et al. 1989; Piombino 1990). Among the finds were 136 small, cylindrical boxwood phials, each with a well-fitted wooden lid; their contents were still partially preserved, and appear to have been a variety of unguents and powders including cinnamon, cumin and vanilla. The phials were apparently packed in groups of three into rectangular lidded boxes, of tin (or pewter) and wood, which in turn may have filled a chest of which only the lock was preserved. Other items were a collyrium bar (eye salve), fragments of a small ivory and wood statue, perhaps of Asclepius, and a bronze bleeding cup. An additional, early find, for which illustrations are not yet available, was a 'hooked iron instrument' identified by Parker (1992: 340) as a scalpel, although the context (like the Grotticelle wreck) pre-dates most known surgical instruments. …