Monday, January 18, 2010

Metals in ancient Egypt

The al of “alchemy” is an Arabic article, but what about the rest of the word? Wikipedia mentions theories favouring Egyptian, Greek or Persian origin of the root. Whatever the etymology, it looks like ancient Egyptians knew quite a lot of chemistry.

This table of Egyptian symbols for the metals (don’t think any of them is in Unicode) misses two or three metals known to ancient Egyptians. According to Hamed A. Ead,

tin was used in the manufacture of bronze, and cobalt has been detected as a coloring agent in certain specimens of glass and glaze. Neither metal occurs naturally in Egypt, and it seems probable that supplies of ore were imported from Persia.
Mercury <...> is stated to have been found in Egyptian tombs of from 1500—1600 B.C.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the terminology used in ancient Egyptian chemical literature sometimes was deliberately misleading:
The use of the trade names for the purpose of concealing the character of the substance used where secrecy seemed desirable was not unknown at that period.
The secret names as the later alchemists used extensively: “blood of the serpent”, “blood of Hephaistos”, “blood of Vesta”, “seed of the lion”, “seed of Hercules”, “bone of the phyasimian”, etc.
The term “blood of the dove” used in the papyrus, von Lippmann has identified from other sources as meaning red lead or sometimes cinnabar.

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