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The Alchemist's Lab Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by Jennifer Pinkowski

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.

Martinón-Torres studies artifacts from a Renaissance laboratory. (Courtesy Marcos Martinón-Torres) [LARGER IMAGE]

"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.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America