Answered By: Regan Brumagen Last Updated: Jul 19, 2016 Views: 40
From Dr. Robert Brill, Research Scientist Emeritus:
My first reaction is to keep the bottles as they are for the time being. In my view, the contents certainly make them all the more important as artifacts. If they are still labelled, that would add to their significance.
If these finds are late 18th or 19th century, it might be possible to identify the sources of the bottles. Many such bottles bear meaningful mold patterns and some are even marked with the names of the manufacturers or individual pharmacies.
But these finds offer other (possibly valuable) possibilities.
I strongly recommend that you contact a local -- but large -- pharmaceutical laboratory to see if they would be interested in sampling the contents and analyzing them. It should be fairly straightforward to characterize them. This could serve at least two purposes.
First, it would be valuable from an archaeological point of view. It would identify some of the medications. Historians of pharmacy, as well as archaeologists, would be interested in that.
Second, it is just possible that the results could be of use to present-day pharmaceutical manufacturers to see what long-term changes might have taken place in the contents. Presumably, an analysis would allow someone with a knowledge of the history of pharmacy to make a reliable guess as to what the original contents were. They could then see what changes might have taken place over the course of a century or more.
There may be a history of pharmacy department at the Smithsonian. I know there is ahistory of pharmacy department at the school of pharmacy in Buffalo.
As you know, among ancient glass containers it is very rare to find one with its original contents. On a few occasions when we came across such containers, we were sometimes able to withdraw liquid samples by inserting a hypodermic needle through a cork or other soft plugs or seals. In that way, we were able to learn something about the contents and also still essentially preserve the integrity of the glasses as museum artifacts.
Medicinal contents are rare and one should not pass by an opportunity of learning as much as possible about them.