The ecology and bioactivity of some Greco-Roman medicinal minerals: the case of Melos earth pigments

Charles Knapp, George Christidis, Danae Venieri, Iosofina Gounaki, Julie Gibney-Vamvakari, Mark Stillings, Effie Photos-Jones

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Mineral compounds, as pigments and therapeutics, appeared regularly in the technical and medical texts of the Greco-Roman (G-R) world. We have referred to them as ‘G-R medicinal minerals’ and we suggest that despite their seeming familiarity, there are actually many unknowns regarding their precise nature and/or purported pharmacological attributes. Earth pigments are part of that group. This paper presents a brief overview of our work over the past twenty years relating to: a. the attempt to locate a select number of them in the places of their origin; b. their chemical/mineralogical characterization; c. the study of their ecology via the identification of the microorganisms surrounding them; d. their testing as antibacterials against known pathogens. In the process, and to fulfil the above, we have developed a novel methodological approach which includes a range of analytical techniques used across many disciplines (mineralogy, geochemistry, DNA extraction and microbiology). This paper focuses on a select number of earth pigments deriving from the island of Melos in the SW Aegean, celebrated in antiquity for its Melian Earth, a white pigment, and asks whether they might display antibacterial activity. We demonstrate that some (but not all) yellow, green and black earth pigments do. We also show that the manner in which they were dispensed (as powders or leachates) was equally important. The results, although preliminary, are informative. Given their use since deep time, earth pigments have never lost their relevance. We suggest that the study of their ecology/mineralogy and potential bioactivity allows for a better understanding of how our perception of them, as both pigments and therapeutics, may have evolved.

Original languageEnglish
Article number166
Number of pages65
JournalArchaeological and Anthropological Sciences
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sept 2021


  • ochre
  • earth pigment
  • jarosite
  • melanterite
  • manganese oxide
  • miltos
  • ecology
  • antibacterial activity


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