The ancient Greeks called it “orichalcum”, a mysterious metal material of unknown composition described by various ancient authors to be a beautiful sparkling red substance with fire-like reflections that adorned structures around the lost city of Atlantis. Yesterday, scientists announced that they had recovered 39 ingots of the mythical orichalcum from a ship that sank 2,600 years ago (around 600 BC) off the coast of Sicily lending further credence to Plato’s account of the legendary city.
Orichalcum (sometimes spelled aurichalcum) has been mentioned in several ancient writings. Jewish historian Josephus also wrote of orichalcum in his historic Antiquities of the Jews (Book VIII, sect. 88) and stated that the vessels in the Temple of Solomon were made of orichalcum, a material that was “like gold in beauty”. Virgil’s epic Latin poem Aeneid, described the breastplate of Tumus as “stiff with gold and orichalcum” while Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that the valuable metal could not be used as currency because the mines had been exhausted (implying that some earlier Roman coins may have been made from orichalcum). Various ancient historians hinted that the material could be manufactured from a specific combination of naturally-occurring metals.
More famously, in Critias, Plato wrote that the city of Atlantis was bejeweled with the mysterious metal. He explained that the unique metal was mined on the mythical island and noted that its value was second only to gold. Plato recalled that the three outer walls of the Temple to Poseidon and Cleito on Atlantis were clad with brass, tin, and “flashed with the red light of orichalcum”. He described the interior walls, pillars, and floors of the temple were completely covered in orichalcum and that the roof was layered with gold, silver, and orichalcum. He said that in the center of the temple, stood a beautiful pillar of pure blazing red orichalcum on which the laws of Poseidon were inscribed.
Today we found that the material likely existed and was not a myth as many suspected. The ingots of newly-discovered orichalcum were reportedly found on a sunken ship that is believed to have been arriving in Gela (southern Sicily), possibly coming from Greece or Asia Minor. The ship was likely caught in a storm and sunk when it was attempting to enter the port. Sicily’s superintendent of the Sea Office told reporters:
“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. Nothing similar has ever been found. “
Gela was long known to be a wealthy city with artisan workshops that specialized in the construction of prized artifacts and jewelry. It is believed the ingots were destined for those very workshops where they would be used in the construction of high-quality decorations.
Scholars had long theorized that the material was some sort of brass-like alloy. X-ray fluorescence of the 39 ingots found off the coast of Sicily revealed that the metal is an alloy formed from 75% copper, 15% zine, and a remaining mixture of nickel, lead, and iron.
Researchers are working to bring up the remaining cache of orichalcum in order to study its composition in greater detail.