Atlantean Brass and other ancient metals
The apparent discovery of the legendary metal of Atlantis is arguably the least exciting in the field of ancient metals in recent times.
Originally published in Fortean Times 327. Images of Delhi Iron Pillar by the author.
In January 2015 the legend of Atlantis received some apparent validation from tenured archaeology with the news from Sicily's Superintendent of the Sea Office of the underwater discovery of orichalcum, a hitherto unknown metal previously named by Plato as cladding the wall of the island's acropolis. The evocation of Atlantis ensured a wide coverage that broke into mass-media in many languages. Yet this is just the latest, and arguably least significant, discovery in about a year's worth of ancient metal finds which are deepening revolutionising our appreciation of ancient technology, and sharpening the hazily-defined realm of Out of Place Artifacts.
Of fabulous orichalcum ('mountain copper'), thirty-nine ingots of the metal come from a wreck arriving at the Greek colony of Gela from Aegean Greece in c. 550-500 BC.[2.] The naming comes from the ingots' composition, roundly proportioned as three-quarters copper to a quarter of zinc with traces of nickel, lead, and iron. A form of brass that accords with a later Roman derivation (aurichalcum) for certain coins. In the period leading up to Plato's Atlantis texts (c. 360 BC) Assyrian tablets from c. 650 BC mention naturally-occurring 'mountain copper',[3.]. Hesiod provides the earliest specific naming of Plato's metal in his hymn To Aphrodite and possibly The Shield of Heracles from c. 630 BC[4.], and Greek mythology attributes the invention of orichalcum to Cadmus, the Phoenician prince who founded Thebes. The Atlantean link to the Gela wreck is not really helpful since Plato did not specify its composition, only mentioning how it was mined on Atlantis, where for its fire-like sparkle its preciousness was second only to gold.[5.] Sicily-is-Atlantis proponent, Thorwald Franke [6.] rejects the Gela discovery due to the obscurity of oreichalkos to Solon and the Saltic Egyptians who provided the legend to Plato, the text states this.[7.] But as an early 1st millennium BC, could the orichalcum of Plato's Atlantis be one of the strongest clues of an influence much closer to home for Plato in time and space? Interpretations of Atlantean orichalcum abound, with much lustre generated by tumbaga, a gold-copper-silver alloy widely used by pre-Columbian cultures for sacred objects. The evocation of Atlantis in the announcement of this discovery underscores how few legends gleam more than its crafty alloying of mythology, tragedy, history, and allegory. Indeed, it is the only ancient legend that the gatekeepers of the mass media seem to pay any attention to anymore, so any opportunity to mention it, however tenuous, is seized on. Where there's Atlantis, there's brass.
Where there's Atlantis, there's brass.
Orichalcum ingot from the Gela wreck
Over in the eastern Mediterranean, November produced a couple of surprises. The world's most scrutinised OOPART, the Antikythera Mechanism, yielded-up another secret: the prediction of a solar eclipse that occurred on May 12, 205 BC.[8.] The basis of the accuracy of this prediction matches Babylonian mathematical astronomy based on observations, rather than Hellenistic Greek astronomy, hamstrung by its basis in an idealised cosmology. The redating of the mechanism to 200 BC based on this could be impactful on the question of its creator. Hipparchus is believed to have first developed a reliable way of predicting eclipses, drawing on a close understanding of Babylonian astronomy. He also lived on Rhodes where the mechanism is thought to have been made (from ceramic finds at the same wreck). Since the only certain date of his is 127 BC after which he was working on calculations, either his deduced lifetime dates of c. 190-120 BC might have to be revised, or else the inventor was an as-yet unknown genius (or college) on whose shoulders Hipparchus stood. A Babylonian on Rhodes? Another expedition to the Anikythera wreck is planned for this summer.
In October, the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes opened new galleries to display treasures from the sacred landscape of Stonehenge. This also marked an extremely rare event: the possible resolution of a long-standing mystery from the Early Bronze Age. It concerned the gold dagger found in the Bush Barrow by William Cunningham in 1808. Before falling to bits (but not before being painted), the handle was decorated with up to 140 000 gold studs, each almost as fine as a human hair. Made centuries before the first magnifying glass, it is one of the most phenomenal achievements of craftsmanship from antiquity (along with the lozenge and other gold objects found beside it). But how was it done and by who? Only children or myopic adults, we learn, would have had the eyesight and the dexterity to make them, permanently damaging their eyes in doing so. In dramatic terms, the museum director compared the work to modern forced child labour.[9.] How do we know that it was not one of the most esteemed things a person could do? As for microscopic work, Robert Temple has found many ancient lenses going back to 3300 BC, usually not displayed in museums, or incorrectly labelled.[10.] Officially, though, this case is closed.
Last year's announcements of at least four major metallurgical discoveries pushed back the horizons of this technology in distinct cultures deeper into the past. At Baffin Island in Arctic Canada a smelting crucible and traces of copper alloys confirmed Viking metallurgy in that region between c. 1000-1400 AD. Not only is this the earliest high-temperature nonferrous metalworking in the New World north of Mesoamerica, its uncovering at the second confirmed Viking settlement in Canada opens to the way to a previously unknown transatlantic trade network between Viking seafarers and Native Americans.[11.] This seems to make somewhat moot the news from six months earlier that the Vinland Map, a purported 15th century Norse mappi mundi depicting 11th century Norse transatlantic voyages, is undoubtedly fraudulent.[12.] Fake or not, the Vikings were in North America by 1000 AD, the physical evidence of it grows yearly. If the Vinland Map is fake, it's a most prescient one, even more phenomenal than if it was 'genuine'.
... its uncovering at the second confirmed Viking settlement in Canada opens to the way to a previously unknown transatlantic trade network between Viking seafarers and Native Americans.
Iron Pillar of Delhi
A tiny copper awl from a woman's grave at Tel Tsaf in Israel made in 4600 BC (at the latest) is now the oldest metal object in the Middle East.[13.] Also from a woman's grave, cylindrical tin studs from the Whitehorse Hill burial on Dartmoor supports the theory, long-suspected from the many menhirs and mining activity in the region, of how the area's inhabitants around 1900-1500 BC were involved in the metal trade, possibly in exchange for Baltic amber beads, also unearthed in the same grave. Furthermore, turqouise glass beads from an extravagant Bronze Age female burial in Denmark were found to originate in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 1400-1100 BC. More ancient long-distance trade, suggesting links between the Egyptian and Nordic sun cults.[14.]
My vote for the most intriguing metallic discovery announced last year goes to a piece of tinfoil used to wrap a figurine and a ring from eastern Serbia. Made of tin-bronze, these tiny objects are epochal game-changers in the history of technology in a way comparable to the Antikythera Mechanism, for these alloys from c. 4650 BC, do not reemerge for at least another 1500 years. They underline how the Old European cultures they emerged from reached a phenomenal height of technological proficiency before undergoing disruption and a decline, the Bronze Age knowledge they instigated lost. But possibly paving the way for the early Mesopotamian state-society cultures that emerged from the interim 'Mythological Age' (archaeologically, the Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age).
Towards the start of this eventful year I fulfilled a long-held fortean ambition to visit the Iron Pillar in Delhi, a seven-ton marvel that, all sources considered, stands in an OOPART borderland. Scientifically-investigated and yet still deeply mysterious after more than 1600 years, a totem to lost knowledge and the fragility of progress. The common belief that the pillar is rust-free is only figuratively true as a 'passive' rust layer, one twentieth of a millimetre thick, covers its upper surface. Debate over this exceptional resistance to corrosion divides into two main camps, environmental and material [15.] Delhi's is the finest example of three iron pillars that still stand in India outside temples. Research in 2013 into another iron pillar at Karnataka shows how its excessive corrosion is saline-driven as it is only on the surface facing towards the Arabian Sea.[16.] The materials school cites the high amount of phosphorus in the Delhi pillar.
The corrosion question is now only a mystery of specialist technical interest along with the method of making >99% pure iron.[17.] The great remaining mystery is the one that most struck me on seeing the pillar up close. How were iron lumps smoothly forge-welded so that the pillar's surface looks so smooth and unwelded, appearing to be a single piece (apart from the base which looks like plasticene)? These are secrets known only to the tribal smiths in the jungles of Orrisa and Madhaya Pradesh,[18.]
If not discovered by specialists some of this past year's discoveries would languish in the cabinet of Out of Place Artefacts. What other OOPARTS stand a chance of being subject to same level of analysis and repatriated into History? Or is the pace of discovery of astounding new discoveries that are overturning what was assumed about ancient technological capabilities rendering it a quaint, even obsolete, category? The definition of OOPARTs needs overhauling to be much more stringent and encompassing, including scientifically-secure things which are also anomalous and extraordinary and requiring much more investigation, while throwing-out what has no independent verification other than ‘I found this on my land’. The roster of semi-official OOPARTS has barely changed in over forty years, a huge stagnation. This does neither forteanism, science or history any good at all.
Iron Pillar of Delhi
1. Original report (Italian): tinyurl.com/o2l22h2
2. Samuel Mark, Homeric Seafaring, Texas University Press (2005), pp. 45-6
3. J. Bayley, "The Production of Brass in Antiquity with Particular Reference to Roman Britain" in Craddock (ed.) 2000 Years of Zinc and Brass, British Museum (1990)
5. Plato (Lamb translation), Critias, 114e, 116b-c, perseus.tufts.edu
6. Translator of Atlantis and Syracuse, reviewed in Fortean Times 300
7. Author correspondence, January 14-15, 2015
8. Christian Carman & James Evans, 'On the epoch of the Antikythera mechanism and its eclipse predictor', Archive for the History of Exact Sciences 68:6, pp. 693-774: tinyurl.com/oubr2dr
10. Robert Temple, The Crystal Sun, Century Books (2000)
17. The American Rolling Mill Company claims to be the first to develop 99.85% pure iron, 0.13% purer than the Delhi Pillar.
18. Hari Bhardwa, Aspects of Ancient Indian Technology, Motilal Banarsidass (1979), pp. 163-5