What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.
The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.
This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.
But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.
In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle. The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).
Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction). With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.
After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.
The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar. Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.
We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body: did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?
This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts. This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.
 David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
 Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
 Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.