Skip to main content

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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - AlchemEast (Alchemy in the Making: From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE - 1000 AD))

Reporting period: 2019-06-01 to 2020-11-30

The AlchemEast project integrates different perspectives and novel methodologies to offer a new paradigm for the history of ancient alchemy. The members of the AlchemEast team conduct their research along three main lines of investigation:

(A) In a longue durée perspective, we aim at reconstructing the origins and early development of alchemy. Medieval scholars of Western Europe did not invent alchemy from scratch, but they reshaped an existing millennium-old tradition. The AlchemEast project focuses on the two and a half millennia that precede the conventional medieval origins of alchemy, in order to write the so far untold first chapters of the history of alchemy. The project looks backwards and explores: (1) the Babylonian proto-chemical arts, (2) the origins of alchemy in the Graeco-Roman Egypt, (3) its reception in Byzantine alchemical compendia, and (4) the different forms in which Syriac and Arabic scholars repackaged the earlier alchemical tradition. In doing so, the project also investigates how alchemical theory and practice were influenced by contiguous sciences and natural philosophy.

(B) The historical investigation is deeply rooted in a careful textual and philological work, which focuses on a multilingual corpus of alchemical texts that are often unedited or difficult to access, being only available in out-of-date and uncritical editions. Akkadian, Greek, Syriac and Arabic primary sources constitute the textual basis of the project, since they reflect the different cultural contexts in which ancient (al)chemical arts developed in Antiquity. The AlchemEast project carries out a comparative investigation of this vast textual corpus in order to reconstruct the transmission and transformation of alchemical writings in their changing cultural contexts.

(C) Most ancient alchemical sources are recipe books describing a variety of procedures that go far beyond the making of gold, since they include a wide spectrum of techniques for manipulating row materials in order to produce dyed metals, artificial gemstones, coloured glass, purple textiles, and a variety of chemical compounds. In order to fully understand the ‘chemical’ realty encapsulated in this rich textual tradition, the AlchemEast project, in close collaboration with modern chemists, has designed a new methodology to re-enact ancient alchemical procedures in modern laboratories. The project carries out philologically informed replications of a set of key-procedures described in the multilingual corpus under examination.
In order to fully integrate the three main research lines of the project, we have built a strongly interdisciplinary research group including scholars with different, but complementary skills. Assyriologists, experts in Greek, Syriac or Arabic texts, historians of science, and chemists are currently working side by side (https://alchemeast.eu/homepage/team/). The cross-disciplinary work has been facilitated by the regular meetings between all the team members as well as by various international workshops that have been organized in Bologna. These workshops dealt with primary sources and their cultural contexts: among other topics, we examined the circulation of technical papyri in the Graeco-Roman Egypt, the relationship between Greek music and Byzantine alchemy, and the main features of Syriac and Arabic alchemical manuscripts.

A wide and multilingual corpus of textual sources is currently under investigation in the framework of the project. Preliminary results have been published in scientific articles and presented in international conferences (for a full list, see https://alchemeast.eu/homepage/events/). This corpus of primary sources includes:

(1) Babylonian chemical recipes. A series of workshops paved the way for this investigation, which is mainly focused on Akkadian tablets on glass making, perfume making, metalworking, and textile dyeing. A thorough analysis of this corpus and its legacy in the later alchemical tradition will be fully developed in the second phase of the project.
(2) Graeco-Egyptian alchemical writings. A fresh and ground-breaking examination has been conducted on the earliest alchemical recipe books that came to us, namely the Leiden and Stockholm papyri. This research will yield the publication of a monographic study fully devoted to these key sources. Moreover, all the alchemical metaphors and anologies used in a selection of Middle-Platonic writings have been digitally marked, in order to investigate the impact of alchemical techniques in the contemporary philosophical discourse.
(3) Byzantine alchemical writings. We have been exploring the textual tradition of the alchemical writings of Christianos as well as of late anonymous recipe-books transmitted in poorly investigated manuscripts. A new catalogue of all the Byzantine alchemical manuscripts kept in Italian libraries will be produced in the framework of the project.
(4) Syriac and Arabic alchemical texts. A first transcription of the Syriac books transmitted under the name of the Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus has been produced during the first phase of the project. This material is currently compared with the rich Arabic alchemical tradition, which has been investigated by devoting particular attention to the alchemical writings ascribed to Maria the Jewess, Pseudo-Democritus, and the alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (‘Rectifications to Plato’; ‘Treatises on the seven metals’).

Preliminary translations of these sources have been produced within the project and discussed with modern chemists, in order to test a selection of ancient alchemical recipes in modern laboratories. The textual work has allowed us to trace the transmission of various alchemical procedures over centuries and to map the slightly different forms in which they were textualized. The replications have been based on this diachronic reconstruction of the selected procedures. So far, the laboratory work has focused on the ancient chemistry of mercury (cold and hot extraction from cinnabar; making of artificial cinnabar) and on the ink production (the making of golden inks and inviable inks).
A team of experts is currently combining rigorous philology with scientific replications. This methodology will produce reliable editions of so far unstudied alchemical sources, which include the Greek, Syriac and Arabic texts whose philological investigation have been conducted during the first phase of the project. Relevant results will be presented in scientific articles and monographic studies. Through this textual and philological work we will be able to write a new history of alchemical ideas and practices in Antiquity in order to answer critical questions, such as: what is ancient alchemy? Who were the ancient alchemists and what did they actually believe and do?

The philologically informed replications of ancient alchemical processes will allow us to restore the operational basis of ancient alchemy, which has been often denied by scholars in the past: led astray by out-of-date historiographical paradigms, they labeled alchemy as a 'pseudo-science' based on a set of foolish attempts to transform base metals into gold. The AlchemEast project will dismantle this pejorative paradigm. The laboratory work will be continued during the second phase of the project: replications will also include ancient procedures for dyeing metals as well as other techniques used to process key ingredients, such as arsenic ores. All the experiments will be recorded and fully described in the section ‘replications’ of the AlchemEast website.

By applying its novel methodologies, the AlchemEast project will promote a radically new vision of alchemy as a dynamic art that developed across different scholastic traditions before its reception in the Medieval Europe. This new representation will allow us to fully reintegrate ancient alchemy in the history of pre-modern alchemy as well as in the history of ancient science more broadly.
AlchemEast_Chronological framework
Experiments in modern laboratories