Tag Archives: Greece

Orichalcum: the Metal of the Gods

Rumored by Ancient Greeks to have been mined in Atlantis, Orichalcum, the Metal of the Gods has been recovered off the coast of Sicily, from a ship that sunk 2,600 years ago. Its composition and origin argued over, Orichalcum’s existence has long been thought a myth by scholars and historians alike.

The 39 Orichalucum ingots recovered
The 39 Orichalucum ingots recovered

Orichalcum first appears in the 7th century BC in the Homeric hymn dedicated to Aphrodite, dated to the 630s attributed to Hesiod. According to Plato’s Critias, the three outer walls of the Temple to Poseidon and Cleito on Atlantis were clad respectively with brass, tin, and the third outer wall, which encompassed the whole citadel, “flashed with the red light of orichalcum”. The interior walls, pillars and floors of the temple were completely covered in orichalcum, and the roof was variegated with gold, silver, and orichalcum. In the center of the temple stood a pillar of orichalcum, on which the laws of Poseidon and records of the first son princes of Poseidon were inscribed.

Orichalcum also appears in the writings of the Jews. In Antiquities of the Jews Josephus, wrote that the vessels in the Temple of Solomon were made of orichalcum. Pliny the Elder points out that the metal had lost currency due to the mines being exhausted. Pseudo-Aristotle in De mirabilibus auscultationibus describes orichalcum as a shining metal produced during the smelting of copper with the addition of “calmia” (zinc oxide).

Rare Orichalcum coins from Ancient Rome
Rare Orichalcum coins from Ancient Rome

The cast metal which possibly came from Greece or Asia Minor was being delivered to Gela in southern Sicily when it sunk off its coast. The ship that was carrying them was likely caught in a storm just when it was about to enter the port. The 39 ingots recovered from the wreck were destined to be used in workshops in the making of high quality decorations.
“The wreck dates to the first half of the sixth century. It was found about 1,000 feet from Gela’s coast at a depth of 10 feet.”
-Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily’s superintendent of the Sea Office.

A total of 39 Orichalum ingots were recovered from the sea floor surrounding the wreckage, a truly rare and unique find. Considering researches only new of the metal through the study of ancient text and a few ornamental objects. Nothing similar has ever been found, in fact the metal’s very existence was long considered false.

Sicilian Team excavating the Ship wreck
Sicilian Team excavating the Ship wreck

The mysterious metal was said to have been forged by Cadmus, according to the ancient Greeks, a largely mythical character of Greeko-Phoenician origin. It was not however until the fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato cited it in the Critias dialogue that the legend of orichalcum was birthed into the world. Plato, in describing Atlantis as flashing “with the red light of orichalcum,” wrote that the metal, second only in value to gold, was mined in Atlantis and furnished Poseidon’s temple interior, walls, columns and floors.

With the find off the Sicilian Coast, the metal’s authenticity of which there is little doubt. Today most scholars agree orichalcum is a brass-like alloy, which was made in antiquity by cementation in a crucible. Adding and aiding the process with the reaction of zinc ore, charcoal and copper metal. Through further investigation conducted with X-ray fluorescence,the composition of the material is now confirmed. The 39 ingots are an alloy made with 75-80 percent copper, 15-20 percent zinc and small percentages of nickel, lead and iron.

“The finding confirms that about a century after its foundation in 689 B.C., Gela grew to become a wealthy city with artisan workshops specialized in the production of prized artifacts,” Tusa said. To add fire to the debate and shrouding the metal in even more mystery are the findings of Enrico Mattievich, a retired professor of physics who taught at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). According to Mattievich the ingots are not properly made from orichalcum. “It appears they are lumps of latone metal, an alloy of copper, zinc and lead,” Mattievich, who has led a number of studies in physics applied to mineralogy, paleontology and archaeology, is one of the scholars who disagree on orichalcum being a brass based metal.

Orichalcum twins found in Central America
Orichalcum twins found in Central America

Further confusing the debate, while other scholars equated the mysterious metal to amber and to other copper based alloys, Mattievich believes orichalcum has its roots in the Peruvian Andes and in the Chavín civilization that developed there from 1200 B.C. to 200 B.C. As chronicled in his book “Journey to the Mythological Inferno” Mattievic claims that the ancient Greeks had discovered America, and there, a metallic alloy “with fire-like reflections” similar to Plato’s description was found in a set of metallic jaguars of Chavin style, which were revealed to be made of 9 percent copper, 76 percent gold and 15 percent silver.
Whatever the origins and nature of orichalcum, Tusa’s team plans to excavate the shipwreck and bring to surface the entire cargo. “It will provide us with precious information on Sicily’s most ancient
economic history,” Tusa said.

The Antikythera Mechanism: Puzzling Elements of Intangible Significance

Artist Interpretation of The Antikythera Mechanism

If not for two storms 2,000 years apart in the same area of the Mediterranean, the most important technological artifact from the ancient world might never have been discovered.   This deeply mysterious and historically significant object represents an altogether more advanced technological sophistication than had previously been thought possible for this era.   Some historians suggest the Antikythera device may have been created by Archimedes at least indirectly as Archimedes is known to have built planetaria devices that model the movement of planets and the sun of similar make and function . Two such devices that also used gears were said to have been rescued from Syracuse when it fell in 212 BC.  References to devices are found in classical literature, including Cicero’s mention of one made by Archimedes although only the one Antikythera device has been found.

Antikythera Gears

The Antikythera device is believed to be one of the most intricately designed antiques in existence who’s detail duplicates that of a Swiss watch.  The device, thought to be at least 2,000 years old was found by chance by sponge divers off the Antikytheran coast,  in the wreckage of a Roman cargo ship. The device was very thin and made of bronze. It was mounted in a wooden frame and had more than 2,000 characters inscribed all over it.  Today it is believed that this instrument was a kind of mechanical analog computer used to calculate the movements of stars and planets in astronomy. It has been estimated that the Antikythera mechanism was built around 87 B.C and was lost in 76 B.C.  The ship was Roman though the Antikythera mechanism was developed in Greece.  One theory suggests that the reason it came to be on the Roman ship could be because the instrument was among the spoils of war acquired by then Roman emperor Julius Caesar. It appears to be constructed upon theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers, and one hypothesis is that the device was constructed at an academy founded by the ancient Stoic philosopher Posidonius on the island of Rhodes, which was known at the time as a center of astronomy and mechanical engineering, and that perhaps the astronomer Hipparchus was the engineer who designed it, since it contains a lunar mechanismthat uses Hipparchus’ theory for the motion of the Moon.

The Remains of What was Found

X-rays of the device have revealed at least 30 different gears that comprise the mechanism.  It was not until 1959 that Derek Price, a British historian who has done extensive research suggested what the Antikythera mechanism may have been used for. Price put forth the theory that the device was used in astronomy to make calculations and predictions. In 1974, Price presented a model of how the Antikythera mechanism might have functioned. When past or future dates were entered into the device it calculated the astronomical information related to the Sun, Moon, and other planets.

Although Price’s findings have been confirmed despite extensive independent research, the full extent of the instrument’s functions still remains a mystery.  Further investigations into the device have revealed how the Antikythera mechanism mapped lunar cycles and predicated eclipses.  It is the oldest known geared mechanism.  It is an important indicator of the high level of mechanical accomplishment available in ancient times.  All of the surviving metallic parts seem to be made of a thin sheet of bronze between 1 and 2 millimeters thick with exquisite surface detail evident in many places.  It is possible that the device could have contained parts of iron and

Radiograph showing Gear Arrangement


or steel but these would have surely perished under the electrochemical affects of the Mediterranean sea where the device was found.

The front dial shows the first 5 planets known in antiquity, as well as those of the sun and moon, measuring the solar and lunar theories of Hipparchos andthe planetary theory of Apollonios of Perga.  The device has three major dials, one on the front, and

two at the rear . The front dial has two concentric scales. The outer ring is marked off with the days of the 365-day Egyptian calendar, or the Sothic year, based on the Sothic cycle. Inside this, there is a second dial marked with the Greek signs of the Zodiac and divided into degrees. The calendar dial can be moved to compensate for the effect of the extra quarter day in the solar year (there are 365.2422 days per year) by reversing  the scale one day every four years. Interestingly the Julian calendar, the first calendar of the region to contain leap years, was not introduced until 46 BC, up to a century after the device was said to have been built.