A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Despite efforts to turn lead into gold, your average sixteenth-century alchemist was probably more scientist than magician.
Alchemy was a protoscientific stew of chemistry, astrology, mysticism,
metallurgy, physics, and religion. It had its origins in Egypt, India, and
China, and has largely been associated with metallurgy and pharmacology. Its
practitioners have been depicted as both cosmic clowns and demonic dabblers.
But that is a modern perspective on the alchemists of medieval and
Renaissance Europe. At that time alchemy was a widespread practice:
archaeologists have found hundreds of artifacts from alchemical laboratories
all over Europe, including England, Norway, Switzerland, France, Portugal,
Germany, Austria, and Denmark (as well as Jamestown, Virginia).
On a practical level, these alchemists were often involved in brass making,
gold smithing, and assessing the noble metal content of ore, jewelry, or
coins. But they were also fascinated with the idea of transmutation and
believed in a sort of infinite mutability of matter. They sought the
philosopher's stone--the magical substance for transforming base metals into
gold and indefinitely prolonging life. Roger Bacon, the thirteenth-century
scholar and one of the earliest advocates of the the scientific method,
described the discipline as incorporating both the ethereal and the mundane.
"Theoretical alchemy theorizes about all inanimate things and about the
whole generation of things from the elements," he wrote. "There is also an
operative and practical alchemy, which teaches how to make precious metals
and pigments, and many other things better and more plentifully than they
are made by nature."
It was the operative and practical aspect of alchemy that Marcos
Martinón-Torres, a Ph.D student in archaeological sciences at University
College London's Institute of Archaeology, sought in his research. Over the
past three years he has analyzed sixteenth-century alchemical laboratory
instruments with twenty-first-century scientific equipment at the Wolfson
Archaeological Science Laboratories in the institute basement. His analysis
has identified the raw materials used in the production of the ceramic
laboratory instruments and what made them suitable for chemical
experimentation--important information for students of late medieval and
Renaissance Europe looking to trace the production and trade of laboratory
instruments. He's also analyzed a cryptic alchemy text and determined that
it describes a reproducible metallurgical process, which indicates the
author really knew his metallurgy. Martinón-Torres' analysis suggests that
the average Renaissance alchemist was a religiously minded researcher
working at a time when the scientific revolution was just beginning, great
discoveries in astronomy and physics by scientists like Johannes Kepler and
Galileo Galilei leading the way.
"Alchemy may look like magic or witchcraft to us, but in the sixteenth
century, it wasn't," Martinón-Torres says. "The best we say about it is that
it's a forerunner of chemistry. Alchemy and chemistry are the same thing.
Many of the things we see as magic, they saw as science."
Jennifer Pinkowski is associate editor/reviews editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.