A writer friend posted a blog about Ancient Remedies Resurrected. He blogs mostly to help other writers use medicine correctly in their fictional murders. This particular post discusses the surprising success of a medieval recipe in killing specific troubling antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- Who would suspect that a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon recipe to vanquish an infected eyelash follicle could do that?
- Who even tried the recipe on something different than its original documented purpose?
- Why was the recipe still around?
- Who could read it?
The first two questions are relatively easy. Some ancient remedies actually work. They were created over hundreds or even thousands of years of experimentation in the real world. Many experiments failed, with the expected unpleasantotherresults. Some worked and were passed down orally from “doctor” to “doctor,” often from parent to child. Often the “doctor” was closely associated with the local religion. One recipe for curing fever occurring in the brain is on an eight century BC tablet. The particular poultice is attributed to oral medical lore dating back to around 1860 BC. The tablet itself cites “mythological sages from before the Flood.” It is hard to argue with such authority. Enough of these old recipes work that it is well worth the effort to test them. Government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and universities all spend some effort searching ancient texts and experimenting. Looking at what the recipe does from a scientific viewpoint may point out some other possible uses of the drug.
The last two questions are the really important ones.
The survival of any particular ancient text is more due to luck than good data management. There is so much that can go wrong. The document first of all has to avoid being broken into a thousand pieces, sunk in the middle of the ocean, cleaned and reused, or being damaged by the ravages of nature with floods, fire, mold, or rot. But perhaps the most danger to old documents is man. Opened in the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the world of its time. The library was destroyed, first by Julius Caesar when he conquered Egypt in 30 AD, and finally by Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391. Pope Theophilus was very thorough. Not only did he complete the destruction of the main library, but also a smaller version, the Serapeum, located elsewhere in Alexandria. Perhaps the first recorded case of a backup failure.
Maybe as significant for the preservation of possible ancient medicinal cures was the destruction of all but four of the thousands of Maya codices by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests. Why were they destroyed? According to Bishop Diego de Landa in July 1562, because “they contained nothing but … superstition and lies of the devil.”
Unfortunately, this organized destruction of the past continues to this day as the result of conquest and religious fanaticism.
We recently visited one such ancient document, and it was only 800 years old. If was both surprisingly readable and very hard to read, and it was a language we had some rusty familiarity with. Image the difficulty of even deciphering an ancient text and then determining its meaning. We do not have a Rosetta Stone for most ancient languages. I am referring to the multi-language stone found in Egypt during Napoleon’s conquest, not the language instruction company – although the statement applies to both. Often even the structure of the language as well as the meaning of individual characters or symbols had to be coaxed out of many documents by many people over many years. Only after that can other researchers begin to search for specific snippets of interest, like medical recipes.
In trying to recreate the recipe that began this post, researchers had to figure out what the ingredients really were, and hope that modern garlic is similar enough to 1,000 year old garlic to actually work. In most cases an ancient text will not describe exactly how hot or long to cook something, or even how much of each component was to be used.
As a discussed earlier, it is perhaps as difficult to keep data for the long term in today’s electronic age as it was in ancient times.
The last word:
Save the data, especially if you have no idea what value it might have in the future. Pictures, movies, personal history stories whether written or currently only oral could be important. Talk to older relatives and friends and get their stories saved. Do it now while you still can.
If you save oral recordings, go back and make transcripts that can also be saved. A hundred years from now there may be no one who can understand what was said.
If your family knows a language that is little used, work to preserve it so its oral and written legacy can be saved.
Even mundane business records can have historical value in a distant future. Kyle Harper used ancient purchase records to reinterpret the end of Roman slavery by determining what slaves were eating in Rome around 300 AD. This kind of information can help fill in the gaps about a civilization and the well-being of its people, whether wealthy citizens or slaves.
As I have said before, keeping data on paper only is not the best idea.
Keep your sense of humor.