Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 2
Part 1 of this blog post (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-1/) focused primarily on how the ancient Egyptians acquired their extensive botanical knowledge. This second blog post will now look more closely at some of the plants that they commonly used – some of which you may know!
One of the most well-known plants associated with ancient Egypt is Cyperus papyrus. The most famous use for this plant was to make an early form of paper. However, papyrus was used by the Egyptians for multiple purposes and was not limited solely to the production of paper. Other common uses of papyrus include the production of ropes, mats, baskets, sandals and chairs. The plant was also used to hold together bouquets of flowers and eaten as food. The open head of a papyrus plant was also a hieroglyph called ‘wadj’, meaning ‘green’, or ‘to be renewed’.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a brightly coloured flowering plant that has heads of yellow, orange or red. From these colourful flowers, different coloured dyes can be extracted. Twelfth dynasty (1991-1803 BC) Egyptian textiles used these dyes to colour fabrics a red, yellow and orange colour. The dyes were sometimes even used on mummy wrappings to give them colour. It wasn’t only the flower’s dye that was used by the ancient Egyptians. Seeds from the flower have been found in temple offerings. Safflower garlands have been found sewn onto both papyrus and cloth wrapped around the mummies. These garlands were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Oil derived from safflower seeds was also used for medicinal purposes as a means to treat insect and scorpion bites.
Ancient Egyptian tombs often contained baskets of juniper berries (Juniperus communis). Oil from the berries was used for anointing the body during the mummification process. The plant was not only used with the dead as both Egyptian cosmetics and medicine sometimes contained J. communis. Juniper was employed medicinally in the treatment of headaches, asthma, indigestion and aching joints.
Allium sativum, commonly called garlic, was used for both culinary and medicinal purposes by the Egyptians. It was used to treat a range of problems, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy. Garlic also featured in many dishes and it has been estimated that 1 ½ million lb (680,000 kg) to feed the slaves and workers building the pyramids at Giza. It appears that the ancient Egyptians revered the plant as images and sculptures have been found in many tombs, including that if Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
Believed to have been made by the god Thoth, Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) was used medicinally as an early form of painkiller and in cooking to add flavour to baked goods like bread. (For a more detailed history of the opium poppy check out my blog post https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/ ).
Ricinus communis (castor oil plant) was used extensively by the Egyptians; being employed as lamp oil, anointing oil and in medicine. The Ebers Papyrus, a medicinal text from ancient Egypt, has a whole section dedicated to the plant and its derivatives (particularly the oil). Castor oil extracted from the seeds was said to cure stomach illnesses, constipation, skin diseases, head-lice and hair restorer. They also believed that the oil was an effective treatment for treating diseases caused by demons.
I hope you have enjoyed this post and a huge thank you Campbell Price (the museum’s Curator of Egypt and Sudan) for all your help with this post! Check out Campbell’s Egypt blog at https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/ for more fascinating posts about ancient Egypt!
This blog post is going to focus on a particularly interesting plant called Papaver somniferum, more commonly known as the opium poppy. Not only does this plant have a fascinating medicinal history, it also impacted heavily on us socially.
Firstly, a bit on the poppy’s medicinal use. Opium, the narcotic extracted from the plant’s seed pod, contains a number of natural painkillers and has been used in pain relief for millennia. In the 17th century, a tincture of opium combined with alcohol became readily available to the general populace under the name laudanum. Along with acting as a painkiller, laudanum was quickly employed as a cure for almost every ailment: from colds to heart problems to menstrual cramps. The drug morphine was later extracted from the opium poppy by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in the early 19th century. Morphine quickly became one of the most widely used painkillers in medicine. A further extract, called heroin, was released in 1898 by the drug company Bayer. This well known drug is now an illegal substance that is frequently abused. All of the forms of opium can be highly addictive and long term use may result in interference with the brain’s endorphin receptors. These receptors are responsible for preventing the transmission of pain signals, making withdrawal difficult.
P. somniferum use predates human recorded history and has been found in Neolithic burial sites as far back as 4,200 BC. The use of opium has been documented in numerous ancient medicinal texts including the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1,500BC and those by Hippocrates in 460 BC and Dioscorides in 1st century AD.
One country that has played a big part in the history of opium is China, which was first introduced to P. somniferum between the 4th and 12th centuries via the trading route known as the Silk Road. By the 1600s, opium was smoked with tobacco and had become a popular pastime for the social elite. The recreational use of opium soon spread to the lower classes and its popularity soared. British traders from the East India Company sold large quantities of opium to smugglers to meet the growing demand for the drug. Worried by this, the Chinese Emperor began to take serious measurers to stop the illegal importation of opium, and in 1838 opium worth millions was destroyed by the Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu.
Since opium smuggling accounted for 15-20% of income for the British Empire, they started of the First Opium War on 18th March 1839 to combat the clampdown. The British won in 1842 and implemented a series of Unequal Treaties. The first of which, the Treaty of Nanking, involved trade concessions as well as forcing the Chinese to pay a total of 21 million ounces of silver in compensation. When Britain tried to make further demands in the 1850s, the Chinese refused and the Second Opium War began. Once again, China lost and this time was forced to legalise the opium trade.
Soon opium use spread from China to the west and, as opium dens became commonplace in cities, Britain attempted to curb the use by its populace. From the 1880s onwards, they tried to reduce opium production in China by discouraging its use. However, this had the opposite effect and opium’s popularity continued to escalate. After the introduction of the more addictive heroin by Bayer, the use of opium and heroin soared even further.
In 1906, the anti-opium initiative was set up by the Chinese to attempt to eradicate the problem. The initiative tried to turn public opinion against the drug through numerous methods, such as meetings, legal action and the requiring of licence. Opium farmers had their properties destroyed, land confiscated and sometimes publically tortured in an attempt to turn the general population against using opium. Though cruel, this method was quickly deemed a success with the majority of Chinese provinces ceasing opium production. However, this success was short-lived. By 1930, China had become the primary source of opium in Eastern Asia. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are addicted to opiates in one form or another and heroin continues to be a widely abused drug across the world.
Despite its chequered past and uses, the opium poppy has still contributed greatly to modern medicine and produces one of the most widely used painkillers today: morphine.
 According to the World Drug Report 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Today I had a really good chat with the artist Lucy Burscough about possibilities for future arts and health projects and I thought I’d share this wonderful painting of a Papaver somniferum seed head from her blog. I love the beautiful glaucous green of the ripening seed head. You can also see the work under construction in another of her posts here.
It’s been a real pleasure to paint one of my favourite things that grow in the garden, a Papaver somniferum seed head. Spending the time to really look at it’s structure and mix it’s colours, both muted and vivid, has made me appreciate it’s beauty even more. I hope you enjoy the results too.
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 20″, November 2012 Available For Sale