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Alchemy in the Making: From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE - 1000 AD)

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First steps of ancient alchemy history are reconstructed by EU-funded project

Combining textual investigations and reconstructions of ancient alchemy procedures, AlchemEast rediscovers the roots of experimental science.

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Ancient alchemy has sometimes received the pejorative label of ‘pseudo-science’ and been described as a set of foolish attempts to transform base metals into gold. But studying the roots of ancient alchemical theories and practices is paramount to understand humanity’s earliest attempts to manipulate the material world. Based on this objective, the EU-funded project AlchemEast investigated ancient alchemy focusing on the two and a half millennia that precede its conventional medieval origins, and that had been so far superficially researched. Coordinated by the University of Bologna, the project explored the Babylonian proto-chemistry, Graeco-Egyptian and Byzantine alchemy and its reception by Syriac and Arabic scholars. AlchemEast investigated cuneiform tablets and a vast collection of Greek, Syriac and Arabic writings to understand how the properties of substances were explored, classified and harnessed to synthetise artificial materials. “The study of ancient alchemy illustrates how, within diverse historical and political contexts, science and technology interacted with religions, cultural values, personal and social beliefs,” states Matteo Martelli, principal coordinator of AlchemEast.

The foundations of ancient alchemy

The broad research of AlchemEast shows a new vision of ancient alchemy as a dynamic and diversified art of transforming matter using a set of dyeing technologies. Ancient alchemists documented practices and techniques and offered theorical explanations of the dyeing methods. Metals, quartz and wool were the main materials they explored. For instance, they attempted to transform base metals like copper or tin into gold and silver, and quartz into various gemstones. Their efforts were also focused on preparing dyeing substances in dry and liquid forms. “The experiences of ancient alchemists in their workshops shaped their minds and guided their understanding of the properties and behaviours of natural substances, including colour, texture, volatility, solubility and the capacity to yield enduring chromatic transformations,” explains Martelli. The technical and artisanal culture of ancient alchemy was readopted and reshaped during those times, and the skills and expertise of ancient alchemists can be compared to the ones of metalworkers, goldsmiths, dyers and druggists.

Reconstruction of ancient recipes

AlchemEast combined the philological analysis with the reconstruction of ancient recipes in the laboratory to better understand the relation between procedures and the way in which they were written. The project’s team of multidisciplinary researchers compared different versions of a recipe. Through this method, the chemists and historians of science could discover more about the material culture and technical knowledge while the philologists perfected the text understanding and translation. Martelli mentions one recipe that stood out in the project, in which cinnabar was heated in a closed vessel with natron oil, a substance that never appeared in extraction techniques documented in later literature. “This choice of natron, which is essentially sodium carbonate, might have been influenced by its religious and cultural value. Graeco-Egyptian temple walls feature recipes of natron balls, which were used to purify metallic statues of gods and to transform corpses into mummies. Our experiment, however, validated that cinnabar can indeed be reduced when heated with sodium carbonate dissolved in vinegar or water,” he adds. This outcome not only enabled the team to understand the role of natron oil as a reducing agent, but it highlighted how cultural considerations and technical observations may have influenced ancient alchemical practices.


AlchemEast, ancient alchemy, science, technology, dyeing methods, cuneiform tablets

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