In 1966, an American archaeologist named Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski was working on a dig at Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried under ash and pumice during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. She noticed something unusual going on among the Italian laborers at the site. As they dug the bright green weeds that needed to be removed before excavation, they packed them up in bundles. At the end of the day, they took these bundles home with them.
A curious woman by nature, Jashemski asked one of the workmen why they were collecting the weeds. He explained to her that the weed was mullein (Verbascum sinuatum L.), a remedy for liver problems, a common ailment among the local population. The exchange got her wondering what kinds of plants grew in ancient Pompeii and whether they, too, were used for medicinal purposes.
She began to explore the subject, analyzing ancient plant remains and consulting a range of modern and ancient texts relating to herbal remedies.
Her research resulted in a fascinating book, “A Pompeian Herbal: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants” (1999), an annotated catalog of medicinal plants that includes detailed, hand-drawn illustrations by two botanical artists, Lillian Nicholson Meyer and Victoria I (pronounced “ee”).
These illustrations, complete with explanatory notes and photographs, are the subject of a wonderful exhibition, “Plants of Pompeii: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants,” now on display in the Church Exhibition Gallery at Smith College’s Lyman Conservatory, part of its Botanic Garden. The exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in the ancient and present-day use of medicinal herbs, including such common remedies as St. John’s Wort for depression and chamomile as a sleep aid.
As the exhibition’s text explains, Jashemski uncovered a trove of historical and literary documentation in researching “A Pompeian Herbal.” One of her primary sources was Pliny the Elder’s tome “Natural History” (written circa 60 CE). She quoted a passage from that book:
“Not even the woods and the wilder face of Nature are without medicines, for there is no place where the holy Mother of all things did not distribute remedies for the healing of mankind, so that even the very desert was made a drugstore…. Hence sprang the art of medicine.”
Among Pliny’s many fascinating potions is what Jashemski described an herbal blend to counteract the poison of venomous animals. The ingredients specified by Pliny included, among other things, wild thyme, parsley and fennel seed…