I heard an interesting piece of news on the radio last week. A bunch of meadowsweet flowers were discovered in a Bronze Age grave at Forteviot, south of Perth, here in Scotland. Here are some links so you can read the full published articles for yourself:
The Telegraph leads with the headline “Grieving relatives have been leaving flowers beside the graves of their loved ones for at least 4,000 years, archaeologists have found.” I was surprised that the media had assumed that this was proof of a “floral tribute” and presumed that the flowers were put there out of sentiment. To me it suggested something completely different – that the person buried suffered from joint aches and pains – possibly arthritis.
I also found another article (Feb 2006) from the Fan Foel site in Wales where meadowsweet was also found. Adam Gwilt, curator of the Bronze and Iron Age Collection at the National Museum of Wales, said “It gives tenderness to otherwise remote and impersonal burial rites”.
What I found so interesting was that as well as the bunch of meadowsweet “placed by the head of the high-status individual,” in Forteviot “diggers also found pieces from a birch bark coffin”.
Birch bark and meadowsweet both contain salicylate. This is the compound synthesised to make the first drug, aspirin. Like aspirin, in traditional herbal medicine plants containing salicylate (like willow bark, birch bark and meadowsweet) have been used to relieve the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or gout.
In fact at Napiers the Herbalists, Scotland’s oldest herbal house, we still sell a 150 year old herbal tea blend formula called Birch Bark Tea which contains birch bark betula pendula, yarrow achillea millefolium, meadowsweet filipendula ulmaria, peppermint mentha piperita, red clover trifolium pratense, nettle leaf urtica dioica, dandelion leaf taraxacum officinale and devil’s claw harpagophytum procumbens. It is prescribed for joint and muscle pain, and arthritis.
It was traditional in early burials to provide food, drink and other useful things for the deceased to use in the after-life. Far from being a sentimental gesture, I suggest that the deceased was buried with the plant medicines he/she needed to relieve aches and pains, possibly because of their additional anti-inflammatory properties, in his or her joints. The bunch of flowers and birch bark were practical gifts to brew up as medicinal teas in the afterlife. Meadowsweet, as an all round, general painkiller and analgesic, would have been used for a wide variety of ill-health symptoms and its actions would have been commonly known among early peoples.
The botanical name of meadowsweet is Filipendula ulmaria. However, in the Victorian times meadowsweet was classified as Spiraea ulmaria. Aspirin was developed in Germany and the old German word for salicylate was Spirsäure. The name aspirin came from A-Spirin (where the A stands for Acetyl). So even in the language you can see the relationship between meadowsweet (Spiraea) and aspirin. Quite literally, I believe our 4000 year old was buried with aspirin!!
Birch bark was also used by Northern indigenous peoples as containers to preserve food. This was probably because there are natural fungicidal and anti-bacterial properties in birch bark which would have retarded the growth of mould. This might also be one of the reasons that birch bark was chosen as a coffin material – to help preserve the dead body.
Today birch bark is being reinvestigated as a medicine. One of the chemicals in birch bark is betulin. Betulinic acid, made from betulin, is being studied as a possible cancer treatment as it may have anti-tumour properties.
Meadowsweet was also used to flavour mead and may also have acted as a preservative. This does not preclude its medicinal use though, as what nicer way to take your medicine. Meadowsweet also has slightly sedative properties so may also have helped to enhance the relaxing qualities of the alcohol.
Further evidence of medicinal use thousands of years ago was found from Neandertal dental records in Spain.