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Take your medicine. The yellowish residue streaked across this shard of pottery found in Abydos, Egypt, contains evidence of a 5100-year-old medicinal wine

German Archaeological Institute of Cairo

Fortified Wine Goes Way Back

A fine wine gets better with age, and the remains of an ancient wine have given researchers a glimpse into the history of medicine. New archaeological research suggests that the ancient Egyptians infused wine with herbal medicines as early as 3150 B.C.E, pushing back the earliest known date for this practice by 1300 years. The finding may even hold clues for treating modern diseases.

As far back as recorded history goes, humans have known that certain plants and extracts have medicinal value. And at some point, says anthropologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, people figured out that if you mixed some herbal medicines into an alcoholic medium, they'd be preserved longer and dissolve more fully than in water, making them more potent. Through trial and error, early physicians became fairly adept at concocting alcohol-containing cures for a range of ailments.

Although researchers aren't sure when people first added medicinal herbs to their wine, the earliest written evidence of such wines in ancient Egypt comes from papyri dating to about 1850 B.C.E. But in 1994, German archaeologists came upon more direct evidence, analyzing a flaky yellow residue from a jar found in a tomb belonging to King Scorpion I in Abydos, Egypt, and built at about 3150 B.C.E. Working with the German group in 2001, McGovern determined that the residue had contained salt crystals left behind when tartaric acid in grapes breaks down. "That was solid confirmation that these vessels contained wine," McGovern says.

The tests also revealed the presence of tree resin. McGovern and colleagues used a barrage of chemical techniques to tease out other biological additives and match them to known plants. As the researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the tests found compounds that suggested the presence of a number of possible herbs, including savory, balm, senna, coriander, mint, sage, and thyme.

Unfortunately, the tests aren't precise enough to pinpoint exactly which of these herbs were in the wine, but all of them show up in Egyptian medical papyri as treatments for a number of ailments. The researchers then compared these findings with the residue from a jar dated to 500 C.E. that was discovered in a tomb in southern Egypt. That jar carried an ancient version of a wine label, identifying it as an herbal wine. Many of the compounds found in the Abydos jar were present in the known herbal wine. To McGovern, that's a good indication that the Egyptians under Scorpion I did indeed infuse their wines with medicinal herbs.

"The methodology used in this paper is really very good, and the paper is really sound," says Rosa Maria Lamuela-Raventós, a food scientist at the University of Barcelona in Spain who has studied ancient Egyptian wine. "This is a scientific confirmation that wine may have been used in ancient Egypt as a vehicle for medicines."

McGovern has begun collaborating with cancer researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to test herbal compounds found in ancient beers and wines for possible tumor-fighting properties. The center is focusing on compounds from ancient Chinese fermented beverages, such as rice wine, but McGovern says they will eventually test Egyptian wines as well.