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Uncovering Ancient Brews, and Cures

When Patrick McGovern dons his Royal Purple latex gloves, the “Doctor Is In.” But this doctor isn’t working with live bodies; his “patients” are pottery sherds from ancient China, Egypt, Lebanon and even Honduras.

Unlike traditional archaeologists who study the sherds themselves for what they can tell us of past civilizations, McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, is looking for evidence of organic material in these remnants of jars, goblets and bowls.

“Most of what we are as humans is organic,” McGovern says. “Our bodies, our clothing, dyes, wood houses, furniture. So the more information we can get from the organic side, the more we find out about how our ancestors developed and why we are the way we are today.”