There is something that resonates deep within us when we read about Oetzi, or are mesmerised by a mummified corpse of the Andes or Nile. We connect somehow with bodies preserved in peat, having a sense that, though long dead, they can somehow still speak to us. We will them to open their eyes, especially those that appear to be only sleeping and whisper their secrets to us. We find ourselves looking at eternity in reverse, as if somehow their secrets can help us understand our own times and our own futures.
There is another understanding of these bodies that is captivating as well. Oetzi reveals highly developed technologies and agriculture. Others reveal sophisticated societies and religions, though sadly in many cases those religions are the death of many – sacrificial deaths account for many modern finds of ancient bodies.
In the December 2007 New Scientist an article drew attention to the work of Jackie Campbell who has been unravelling the medical resources of the Egyptians, suggesting that sophisticated pharmaceutical remedies were available to the ancient world perhaps 2000 years BC, 1500 years ahead of what the Greek record suggests. But her work is more fascinating than simply comparing dates. The Egyptians had thousands of prescriptions for ailments, though unlike the Greek medical history which is easy to translate, understanding ingredients from Egyptian records is difficult due to translation challenges.
Nonetheless Campbell and others have come to understand that many of the methods used for preparing medicines were the same as those we use today. They knew when to concentrate a drug by boiling it. Or when to dilute it. When to extract from a plant and when to do so using water or alcohol. Remarkably, when the ancient remedies were compared with the 1973 British Pharmaceutical Codex which lays down standards and protocols for making up medicines 67% of ancient Egyptian medicines complied, though with the exception of being prepared in a sterile environment. On top of that, with the sole exception of injections they knew the methods and advantages of various means of dispensing medicines – whether that was through nasal inhalation or suppositories or any other application we use today. But the wonder continues when Campbell reveals that “sixty four per cent of the prescriptions had therapeutic value on a par with drugs used in the past 50 years. In many cases even the dosing was right.” Asru, a 60 year old woman, dead since the 8th century BC but now resident in Manchester (UK), had parasitic infections, arthritis, diabetes, “Desert Lung” and a host of other diseases but which her doctors apparently could have addressed quite effectively.
It is intriguing reading and enough to remind you that there are not enough lifetimes to examine all that catches your eye. And a reminder that humans are endlessly fascinating. And of course it is a handy reminder that, least we get to big headed about our modern achievements, there is very little we do today which is more clever than our forebears achieved.