Article ID: CBB811754311

Pigments giving more than colour: The case of Lemnian earth or miltos (2023)


This paper focuses on a statement first made by Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, v 97) in reference to a renowned mineral medicinal, Lemnian Earth (LE) or Lemnian Miltos (LM). Dioscorides stated that ‘goats’ blood’ must have been added to the earth, to make it red and unstaining, but this comment of his became a source of some ‘concern’ to later authors, like Galen; it meant that LE was a prepared rather than a natural material, and further, one prepared in a rather unconventional way. LE was used for a variety of ailments but mainly against poison ingested or injected (by venomous snakes). To our knowledge there are no samples of LE dating to antiquity but the Pharmacy Museum of the University of Basel has samples dating to a much later period (16th-18th century ce), when LEs circulated under a variety of colours (white/grey/yellow/red) rather than just red. Chemical and mineralogical analysis of a select number of samples, combined with DNA sequencing of their microbial load revealed the presence of the fungal species Talaromyces (previously identified as part of the Penicillium family). Therefore, it is suggested here that microorganisms, like fungi, and their associated (red) pigmenting organic compounds (secondary metabolites) might have been the source of the colour red, and not ‘goats’ blood’. Fungalderived pigments are used widely as food colorants today. In seeking evidence, within the documentary record, for the deliberate introduction of a fungal load I highlight a comment by Galen that LE was mixed with wheat and barley. Had that grain been ‘mouldy’, it could have easily provided the source for Penicillium. Dioscorides’ comment may appear, at first, innocuous and of little consequence to the study of ancient pharmacology, focused as it is on plant-derived bioactive substances. Yet, minerals and rocks constitute circa 10% of the Dioscoridean pharmacopoeia, and the synthetic ones a much smaller subset. Therefore his ‘off-the-cuff’ remark may have the potential to shed light on possible ancient biotechnological practices, currently little appreciated and/or understood.

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Authors & Contributors
Vinzenz Brinkmann
Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann
Martelli, Matteo
David E. Friesem
Gil Gambash
Hariclia Brecoulaki
Technai, An International Journal for Ancient Science and Technology
Medicina nei Secoli - Arte e Scienza
Galenos: Rivista di Filologia dei Testi Medici Antichi
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Asclepio: Archivo Iberoamericano de Historia de la Medicina
Edizioni Cadmo
Dioscorides, Pedanios
Theophrastos of Eresos
Pliny the Elder
Asclepius of Epidaurus
Aetios of Amida
Time Periods
2nd century
5th century
Early modern
Bronze age
Mediterranean region
Hellenistic world
Université de Montpellier

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