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Technical Arts Related To Alchemy in Old Egypt
These pages are edited by Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead
Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo
Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center
Web site: http://www.frcu.eun.eg/www/universities/html/shc/index.htm
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Earliest Chemical Manuscripts of the Chemical Arts In Egypt
In spite of Egypt is generally recognized as the mother of the chemical
and alchemical arts, but unfortunately her monuments and literature have
left little of the early records which explain these arts.
Some of these ideas have been transmitted to us through Greek and Roman
sources but the character of these sources do not enable us to
discriminate between the matter derived from Egypt and the confused
interpretation or additions of the early Greek alchemists.
The stories told us that about 290 A.D. the Emperor Diocletian passed
a decree compelling the destruction of the works upon alchemical arts
and on gold and silver throughout the empire, so that it should not be
the makers of gold and silver to amass riches which might enable them to
organize revolts against the empire. This decree resulted in the
disappearance of a mass of literature which doubtless would have
furnished us with much of interest in the early history of chemical arts
Discovery of earliest chemical manuscripts
However, fortunately there have been saved to our times two important
Egyptian works on chemical processes; the earliest original sources on
such subjects discovered at Thebes (South Egypt), and both formed part
of a collection of Egyptian papyrus manuscripts written in Greek and
collected in the early years of the nineteenth by Johann d'Anastasy,
vice consul of Sweden at Alexandria.
The main part of this collection was sold in 1828 by the collector to
the Netherlands government and was deposited in the University of
Leyden. In 1885, C. Leemans completed the publication of a critical
edition of the texts with Latin translation of a number of these
manuscripts, and among these was one of the two works above mentioned.
It is known as the Papyrus X of Leyden.
The French chemist Marcelin Berthelot who was interested in the
history of early chemistry, subjected this Papyrus to critical analysis
and published a translation of his results into French with extensive
notes and commentaries
On the basis of philological and paleography evidence, he concluded its
date is about the end of the third century A. D. It is, however,
manifestly a copy of a work previously written, as slight errors
evidently due to a copyist, are found. That the original is later than
the first century A. D. is certain, as there are included in it extracts
from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. The work is a collection of
chemical recipes and directions for :
1. Making metallic alloys,
2. Imitations of gold, silver or electrum,
3. Dyeing and other related arts.
In 1913 at Upsala, Otto Lagercrantz published the Greek text with
critical commentary and with translation into German of a similar
Egyptian papyrus, the " Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis." This work like the
Leyden manuscript is a collection of recipes for alloys, metal working,
dyeing, imitations of precious stones and similar arts. Investigation
developed that this manuscript also came from the Swedish vice consul at
Alexandria, d'Anastasy, presented by him to the Swedish Academy of
Antiquities of Stockholm. Here it slumbered apparently unnoticed until
1906 when it was transferred to the Victoria Museum at Upsala.
Examination and comparison with the Leyden Papyrus made it evident that
the new papyrus was not only identical, but in all probability was in
part at least written by the same hand.
Both papyri were in remarkably well preserved condition. Both gave
internal evidence of having been copied from other originals. Berthelot
has suggested that the Papyrus X had been preserved in the mummy-case of
an Egyptian chemist, and Lagercrantz agreed in the opinion and is
convinced that the two works were the property of the same person, and
that these copies were probably made as deluxe copies for the purpose
of being entombed with their former owner in accordance with a common
custom of placing in the tomb articles formerly owned or used by the
The two manuscripts were taken together from an interesting collection
of laboratory recipes of the kinds which Diocletian ordered destroyed
and which apparently were very generally destroyed. The date ascribed to
them is about the time of the decree of Diocletian, and it may be
presumed that, in the mummy case, they escaped the execution of that
The laboratory manuals from which these copies were made, were written
not for public information but for the guidance of the workers. The
recipes themselves are often very detailed directions, but often also
were mere hints or suggestions, sometimes elliptical to such an extent
as to give no clear idea of the process as carried out.
The Leyden papyrus comprises about seventy-five recipes pertaining to
the making of alloys, for soldering metals, for coloring the surfaces of
metals, for testing the quality of or purity of metals, or for imitating
the precious metals.
There are fifteen recipes for writing in gold or silver or in imitation
of gold and silver writing. There are eleven recipes for dyeing stuffs
in purple or other colors. The last eleven paragraphs are extracts from
the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, relating to the minerals or materials
used in the processes involved.
Berthelot notes that the artisan who used these notes while a practical
worker in metals, especially the metals used by the jewelers, seemed to
be a stranger to the arts of enamels and of artificial gems. It is,
therefore, of great interest to discover that the Stockholm papyrus
supplements the Leyden recipes in this direction. The Stockholm
manuscript contains in all about a hundred and fifty recipes. Of these,
only nine deal with metals and alloys, while over sixty relate to dyeing
and about seventy to the production of artificial gems. Some ten others
deal with the whitening of off-color pearls or the making of artificial
It has been noticed that there is practically only a duplication of
recipes contained in each of the manuscripts, and very similar recipes
occur in both. The recipes in both are empirical with no evidences of
any occult theories, nor any of that obscurity of language which is so
characteristic of the later alchemists.
The parts dealing with the metals are largely concerned with
transmutation of gold, silver or electrum from cheaper materials, or
with giving an external or superficial color of gold or silver to
cheaper metal. There seems to be no self-deception in those matters. On
the contrary, there are often claims that the product will answer the
usual tests for genuine products, or that they will deceive even the
artisans. The vocabulary of materials used is practically that of
Dioscorides, with few changes in the meaning of such terms as are used
by him, although at times the Latin equivalents of Vitruvius and Pliny
have been employed.
There is little to be found in these manuscripts which suggests that
there has been any advance in the practical arts as known in the times
of Dioscorides and Pliny and which had been less specifically described
by them, but the papyri in the more definite and detailed directions
they give, throw a very interesting light upon the somewhat limited
fields of industrial chemistry, of which they treat.
Examples will best serve to illustrate the character of the recipes and
of the knowledge of practical chemistry which underlies them.
The following are some selections of the Papyrus of Leyden, as found in
the previously mentioned translation of Berthelot:
Manufacture of asem (eleetrum)
Tin, 12 drachmas; quicksilver, 4 drachmas; earth of Chios, 2 drachmas.
To the melted tin add the powdered earth, then add the mereury, stir
with an iron, and put it into use.
[This, then, is a tin amalgam intended to give the appearance of asem or
silver. The earth of Chios as described by Pliny appears to have been a
white clay. Pliny says it was used by women as a cosmetic.]
The doubling (diplosis) of asem
Take refined copper (chalchos) 40 drachmas, asem 8 drachmas, button tin
40 drachmas. The copper is first melted and after two heatings the tin
and finally the asem is added. When all is softened, remelt several
times and cool by means of the preceding composition. Clean with
coupholith (tale or selenite according to Berthelot). The tripling
(triplosis) is effected by the same process, the weights being
proportioned in conformity with what has been directed above.
[This recipe would yield a pale yellow bronze containing mercury if, as
Purification of tin
Liquid pitch and bitumen, one part of each. Throw it on and melt and
stir. Of dry pitch 20 drachmas, bitumen 12 drachmas.
[This is manifestly a process of obtaining an unoxidized clean tin for
Manufacture of asem
Take soft tin in small pieces, four times purified. Take of it four
parts and three parts of pure white Copper (or bronze, "chalchos"), and
one part of asem. Melt and after casting, clean several times and make
what you will with it. This will be asem of the first quality which will
deceive even the artisans.
[Copper was whitened by the ancients sometimes by alloying with
arsenic. A recipe in this papyrus gives directions for this whitening of
Augmentation of gold
To augment gold, take Thracian cadmia, make the mixture with the cadmia
in crusts; or cadmia of Gaul misy and sinopian red, equal parts to that
of gold. When the gold has been put into the furnace and has become of
good color, throw in these two ingredients and removing [the gold] let
it cool and the gold will be doubled.
[Cadmia, it will be remembered, is the impure zinc oxide, containing
sometimes lead and copper oxides, from the furnaces in which brass was
smelted. Misy was the partly oxidized iron or copper pyrites,
essentially basic sulphates of iron and copper. Synopian red was
haematite. This mixture, assuming the reducing action of the fuel in the
furnace, or of any other reducing agent not specified in the recipe
would yield an alloy of gold and zinc, with some copper and perhaps some
To make asem
Carefully purify lead with pitch and bitumen, or tin as well; mix cadmia
and litharge in equal parts with the lead. Stir till the mixture becomes
solid. It can be used like natural asem.
[Reduction in the furnace must here also be assumed. The soft white alloy
so obtained must have been a cheap and poor substitute for electrum or
Preparation of chrysocolla (solder for gold)
The solder for gold is prepared thus: Copper of Cyprus 4 parts, asem 2
parts, gold 1 part. The copper is melted first, then the asem and
finally the gold.
[It will be recalled that the term "chrysocolla" was applied also to
malachite, verdigris and copper acetate, all of these being used for
To determine the purity of tin
Having melted it, place paper (papyrus) underneath it and pour it out.
[If the paper is scorched the tin contains lead.]
To make asem black as obsidian
Asem, 2 parts, lead, 4 parts. Place in an earthen vessel, throw on it a
triple weight of native sulphur, and having put into the furnace, melt.
After withdrawing from the furnace, beat and make what you will. If you
wish to make figured objects of beaten or cast metal, polish and cut it.
It does not rust.
[This process yields a metallic mass blackened with sulphides of lead and
silver, similar to the black silver bronze as described by Pliny.]
To give objects of copper the appearance of gold, so that neither the
feel, nor rubbing on the touchstone can detect it, to serve especially
for a ring of fine appearance.
Gold and lead are reduced to a fine powder like flour, 2 parts lead to 1
of gold. When mixed, they are mixed with gum and the ring covered with
this mixture and heated. The operation is repeated several times till
the article has taken the color. It is difficult to detect because
rubbing gives the mark (or "scratch") of a genuine article, and the heat
consumes the lead but not the gold.
[This is an interesting process of gold plating by using lead instead of
mercury, the lead being oxidized and volatilized in the heating.]
Test for purity of gold
Remelt and heat it. If pure, it keeps its color after heating, and
remains like a coin. If it becomes whiter, it contains silver, if it
becomes rough and hard, it contains copper and tin, if it softens and
blackens it contains lead.
To gild silver in a durable way
Take quicksilver and gold leaf, making to the consistency of wax. Clean
the vase with alum, and taking a little of the waxy material spread it
on the vase with the polisher and let it stand to fix. Do this five
times. Take the vase with a linen cloth so that it be not soiled, and
removing it from the coals, prepare ashes, smooth with the polisher and
use it as a gold vase. It will stand the test for real gold.
[The recipes for writing with letters of gold vary much according to the
material upon which the were to be applied, as also with respect to
their relative durability.]
To write in letters of gold
Take quicksilver, pour it into a suitable vase and add gold leaf. When
the gold appears dissolved in the quicksilver, shake well, add a little
gum, one grain for example, and letting it stand, write in letters of
Cheaper imitations of gold writing were also used as illustrated in the
Orpiment of gold color, 20 drachmas; powdered glass, 4 staters; or white
of egg, 2 staters; white gum, 20 staters; safran.....
After writing, let it dry and polish with a tooth.
[An animal's tooth used by jewelers for polishing up till now.
In other recipes, the yellow or gold color is obtained by sulphur
mixed with gum; the "bile of the tortoise," or of the calf, "very
bitter," serves also for the color. These may be secret trade names for
some substances of different character.]