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Archaeo News 

3 March 2004
A new first chapter in the history of medicine

An art historian and a medical historian are proposing a new date for the first known use of medicine. Their argument is based on frescoes on the Aegean island of Thera (Greece) that are dated to 1500 or 1600 BCE. “We know the date of the frescoes because a volcanic eruption stopped the clock, much as was the case with Pompeii,” say the scholars. Until now the earliest visual and written evidence of the use of medicinal plants (myrtle, lily, poppy, etc.) was from around 1000 BCE.
     The frescoes were originally thought to depict a goddess overseeing the production of perfume or spice. Susan C. Ferrence, a doctoral candidate in art history, became convinced that the paintings show the medicinal use of saffron, in part because they seem to focus on the saffron crocus. Dr Gordon Bendersky, a retired cardiologist in the history department of the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the paintings track the stages of saffron production from plucking blooms to the collection of stigmas: “We see every stage in production except for the removal of the stigma. But what we have is enough to indicate that a manufacturing process took place”. Dr. Bendersky concludes that the frescoes are of a goddess of healing associated with therapeutic saffron. There is striking supporting evidence in written records from many countries about the use of saffron in 90 illnesses over four millennia. And one of the Thera frescoes appears to depict a woman treating her bleeding foot with saffron.
     Previously the first mention of saffron was cited as appearing in an Assyrian botanical dictionary from the reign of Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BCE. Widespread use of saffron has been discounted because of its high cost, but Ferrence and Bendersky point out that just a few milligrams are effective for medicinal purposes.
     The analysis will be published in the spring issue of the journal ‘Perspectives in Biology and Medicine’. Dr. Ellen N. Davies, a retired professor of archaeology and specialist in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, said: “It’s the most valuable and convincing study of the medicinal uses of saffron in the ancient Mediterranean world”.

Source: New York Times (2 March 2004)

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