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Earliest Egyptian Chemical Manuscripts


Earliest Egyptian Chemical Manuscripts

Edited and Prepared by Prof. Hamed A. Ead


Although Egypt is generally recognized as the mother of chemical and alchemical arts, unfortunately her monuments and literature have left only a few records which explain these arts. Some of these ideas that have been transmitted to us through Greek and Roman sources do not enable us to discriminate between the matter derived from Egypt and the confused interpretation or additions of the early Greek alchemists.

History tells us that about 290 A.D, the Emperor Diocletian passed a decree providing for the destruction of works and ancient books on alchemical arts as well as on gold and silver throughout the empire, so as to prevent the makers of gold and silver from a massing richness which might enable them to organize revolts against the empire. This decree resulted in the disappearance of a mass of literature which doubtless would have furnished us with much insight into the early history of chemicals arts and ideas.

Discovery of the Earliest Egyptian Chemical Manuscripts


Part of the Stockholm Papyrus


Leyden Papyrus and Stockholm Papyrus

Fortunately, there have been saved to our times two important Egyptian works on chemicals processes; the earliest original sources on such subjects discovered at Thebes (South Egypt), and both formed part of a collection of Egyptian papyrus manuscripts written in Greek and collected in the early years of the nineteenth by Johann d Anastay, vice-consul of Sweden at Alexandria.

The main part of this collection was sold in 1828 by the collector to the Netherlands government and was deposited in the University of Leyden. In 1885, C. Leemans completed the publication of a critical edition of the texts with a Latin translation of a number of these manuscripts, including both works mentioned above.
It is known as the Papyrus X of Leyden.
The French chemist Marcelin Berhelot who was interested in the history of the early chemistry, subjected this Papyrus to critical analysis and published a translation of his results into French with extensive notes and commentaries.

On the basis of philological and paleographic evidence, he concluded that it dated back to about the end of the Third Century A.D. , however it is manifestly a copy a work previously written, as slight errors evidently due to copyist, are found. That the original is later than the First Century A.D. is certain as it included extracts from the Materia Media of Dioscorides. The work is a collection of chemical recipes and directions for :

Making metallic alloys

Imitations of gold, silver or electrum

Dyeing and other related arts

In 1913 at Upsala, Otto Lagercrantz published the Greek text with a translation into German of a similar Egyptian papyrus ;the "Papyrus Graecus Holmienis." This work like the Leyden manuscript is a collection of recipes for alloys, metal working, dyeing, imitations of precious stones and similar arts. Investigation revealed that this manuscript also came from Swedish vice consul at Alexandria, dAnastasy, presented by him to the Swedish Academy of Antiquities of Stockholm. Here it slumbered apparently unnoticed until 1906 when it was transferred to the Victoria Museum at Upsala.

Examination and comparison with the Leyden Papyrus made it evident that the new papyrus was not only identical, but in all probability was in part at least written by the same hand. Both papyri were in remarkably well preserved condition. Both gave internal evidence of having been copied from other originals. Berthelot has suggested that the Papyrus X had been preserved in the mummy case of an Egyptian chemist, and Lagercrantz agreed in the opinion and is probably made as deluxe copies for the purpose of being entombed with their former owner in accordance with a common custom of placing in the tomb articles formerly owned or used by the deceased. The two manuscripts were taken together from an interesting collection of laboratory recipes of the kinds which Diocletain ordered destroyed and which apparently were very generally destroyed . The date ascribed to them is about the time of the decree of Diocletain, and it may be presumed that, in the mummy case, they escaped the execution of that decree.

The laboratory manuals from which these copies were made, were written not for public information but for the guidance of the workers. The recipes themselves are often very detailed directions, but often also were hints or suggestions, sometimes elliptical to such an extent as to give no clear idea of the process as carried out.

The Leyedn papyrus compress about seventy five recipes pertaining to the making of alloys, for soldering metals, for coloring the surfaces of metals, for testing the quality of or purify of metals, or for imitating the precious metals.

There are fifteen recipes for writing in gold or silver in imitation of gold and silver writing. There are eleven recipes for dyeing stuffs in purple or other colors. The last eleven paragraphs are extracts from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, relating to the minerals or materials used in the processes involved.

Berthelot notes that the artisan who used these notes while a practical worker in metals, especially the metals used by the jewelers, seemed to be a stranger to the arts of enamels and of artificial gems.

It is, therefore, of great interest to discover that the Stockholm papyrus supplements the Leyden recipes in this direction. The Stockholm manuscript contains in all about a hundred and fifty recipes.

Of these, only nine deal metals and alloys, while over sixty relate to dyeing and about seventy to the production of artificial gems. Some ten others deal with the whitening of off-color pearls or the making of artificial pearls.

It has been noticed that there is practically only a duplication of recipes contained in each of the manuscripts, and very similar recipes occur in both. The recipes in both are empirical with no evidences of any occult theories, nor any of that obscurity of language which is so characteristic of the later alchemists.

The parts dealing with the metals are largely with the metals are largely concerned with transmutation of gold, silver or electrum from cheaper materials, or with giving an external or superficial colour of gold or silver to cheaper metal. There seems to be no self -deception in these matters. On the contrary, there are often claims that the product will answer the usual tests for genuine products, or that they will deceive even the artisans. The vocabulary of materials used is practically that of Dioscorides, with few changes in the meaning used of such terms as are used by him, although at times the Latin equivalence of Vitruvius and Pliny have been employed.

There is little to be found in these manuscripts which suggests that there has been less specifically described by them, but the papyri in the more definite and detailed directions they give, throw a very interesting light upon the somewhat limited fields of industrial chemistry, of which they treat.

Examples will best serve to illustrate the character of the recipes and of the knowledge of practical chemistry which underlines them.

The following are some selections of the Papyrus of Leyden, as found in the previously mentioned translation of Berhelot:

Manufacture of asem (electrum)

Tin, 12 drachmas; quicksilver, 4 drachmas; earth of Chios, 2drachmas. To the melted tin add the powdered earth, then add the mereury, stir with an iron, and put it into use. (This, then, is a tin amalgam intended to give the appearance of asem or silver. The earth of Chios as described by Pliny appears to have been a white clay. Pliny says it was used by women as a cosmetic.)

The doubling (diplosis) of asem

Take refined copper (chalchos) 40 drachmas, asem 8 drachmas, button tin 40 drachmas. The copper is first melted and after two heatings the tin and finally the asem is added. When all is softened, remelt several times and cool by means of the preceding composition. Clean with coupholith(tale or selenite according to Berthelot). The tripling (triplosis)is effected by the same process, the weights being proportioned in conformity with what has been directed above.(This recipe would yield a pale yellow bronze containing mercury if ,as seems probable.)

Purification of tin

Liquid pitch and bitumen, one part of each. Throw it on and melt and stir. Of dry pitch 20 drachmas, bitumen12 drachmas. ( This is manifestly a process of obtaining an unoxidized clean tin for further use.)

Manufacture of asem

Take soft tin in small pieces, four times purified. Take of it four parts of pure white copper (or bronze "chachos"), and one part of asem. Melt and after casting, clean several times and make what you will with it. This will be asem of the first quality which will deceive even the artisans. (Copper was whitened by the ancients sometimes by alloying with arsenic. A recipe in this papyrus gives directions for this whitening of copper.)

Augmentation of gold

To augment gold, take Tracian cademia, make the mixture with the cademia in crusts; or cademia of Gaul misy and sinopian red, equal parts to that of gold. When the gold has been put into the furnace and has become of good color, throw in these two ingredients and removing (the gold) let it cool and the gold will be doubled.

(Cademia, it will be remembered, is the impure zinc oxide, containing sometimes lead and copper oxides, from the furnaces in which brass was smelted. Misy was the partly oxidized iron or coper pyrites, essentially basic sulphates of iron and copper. Synoppian red was haematite. This mixture, assuming the reducing action of the fuel in the furnace, or of any other reducing agent not specified in the recipe would yield an alloy of gold and zinc, with some copper and perhaps some lead.)

To make asem

Carefully purify lead with pitch and bitumen, or tin as well; mix cademia and litharge in equal parts with the lead. Stir till the mixture becomes solid. It can be used like natural asem. [Reduction in the furnace must here also assumed. The soft white alloy so obtained must have been a cheap and poor substitute for electrum or silver.]

Preparation of chrysocolla ( solder for gold)

The solder for gold is prepared thus; Copper of Cyprus 4 parts, asem 2 parts, gold 1 part. The copper is melted first, then the asem and finally the gold. [It will be recalled that the term "chrysocolla" was applied also to malachite, verdigris and copper acetate, all of these being used for soldering gold.]

To determine the purity of tin

Having melted it, place paper (papyrus) underneath it and pour it out. [If the paper is scorched the tin contains lead.]

To make asem black as obsidian

Asem, 2parts, lead, 4 parts. Place in an earthen vessel, throw on it a triple weight of native sulphur, and having put into the furnace, melt. After withdrawing from the furnace, beat and make what you will. If you wish to make figured objects of beaten or cast metal, polish and cut it. It does not rust.

[This process yields a metallic mass blackened with sulphides of lead and similar to the black silver bronze as described by Pliny.]

To give objects of copper the appearance of gold, so that neither the feel, nor rubbing on the touchstone can detect it, to serve especially for a ring of fine appearance.

Gold and lead are reduced to fine powder like flour, 2 parts lead to 1 of gold. When mixed, they are mixed with gum and the ring covered with this mixture and heated. The operation is repeated several times till the article has taken the color. It is difficult to detect because rubbing gives the mark or ("scratch") of a genuine article, and the heat consumes the lead and not the gold.

[This is an interesting process of gold plating by using lead instead of mercury, the lead being oxidized and volatilized in the heating.]

Test for purity of gold

Re-melt and heat it. If pure, it keeps its color after heating, and remains like a coin. If it becomes whiter, it contains silver, if it becomes rough and hard, it contains copper and tin, if it softens and blackens, it contains lead.

To gild silver in a durable way

Take quicksilver and gold leaf, making to the consistency of wax. Clean the vase with alum, and taking a little of the waxy material spread it on the vase with the polisher and let it stand to fix. Do this 5 times. Take the vase with a linen cloth so that it be not soiled, and removing it from the coals, prepare ashes, smooth with the polisher and use it as a gold vase. It will stand the test for real gold.

[ The recipes for writing with letters of gold vary much according to the material upon which they were to be applied, as also with respect to their relative durability.]

To write in letters of gold

Take quicksilver, pour it into a suitable vase and add gold leaf. When the gold appears dissolved in the quicksilver, shake well, add a little gum, one grain for example, and letting it stand, write in letters of gold.

Cheaper imitations of gold writings were also used as illustrated in the following:

Orpiment of gold color, 20 drachmas; powdered glass, 4 staters; or white of egg, 2 staters; white gum, 20 staters; safran. After writing let it dry and polish with a tooth.

[An animals tooth used by jewelers for polishing up till now. In other recipes, the yellow or gold color is obtained by sulphur mixed with gum; the "bile of the tortoise," or of the calf, "very bitter," serves also for the color. These maybe secret trade names for some substances of different character.]

Dyeing Processes in Leyden and Stockholm Papyri

The processes of dyeing are treated much more fully in the Swedish papyrus than in the Leyden one, and can better be discussed in connection with that work. Here you will find a comparison of dyeing processes in both papri***:

Leyden papyrus
Preparation of purple: Break in small pieces Phrygian Stone; bring to a boil and having immersed the wool, leave it till becomes cool, then throwing into the vessel 1mina of algae, boil and throw in the wool and letting cool, wash it in sea- water to purple coloration. The Phyrygian stone is roasted before breaking.

Stockholm papyrus
Purple-Roast and boil Phrygian stone. Let the wool stay in till cold. Then take it out; put into another vessel orseille (sea-wood or algae) and amranth, on emina of each, boil and let the wool cool in it.

***It is a pretty evidence(as Berthelot said) that the two recipes are practically the same, the first one helps us to understand the other.

Phrygian Stone


It is considered by Berthelot probably to have been an alunite, or basic sulphate of aluminium and potassium.

While Pliny describes it as a porous stone resembling pumice which is saturated with wine and then calcined at red heat and quenched in sweet wine-the operation is three times repeated.

Its only use is in dyeing cloths

The algae used are manifestly the source of the dyestuff were probably lichens such as were formerly much used and which yield the dyestuff called archil or orseille.

The notes on dyeing form an important part of the Stockholm papyrus, and furnish more specific information as to methods and materials employed than any other source of information as to the dyeing processes in use in Egypt in ancient times.

The recipes are almost exclusively devoted to the dyeing of wool. The colors range from purple and reds to rose, yellow, green, and blue, though the greater number of recipes have to do with purple.

That term with the ancients, includes deep red and even red brown as well as purples proper.

Hints for testing the quality of dyestuffs


Woad should be heavy and dark blue if good, if light and whitish, it is not good.

Syrian Kermes -crush those which are best colored and lightest, those which are black or spotted white are bad. Rub up with soda and dissolve the fine colored.

Rub up the best colored madder and so make the test. Purple colored and fast orseille is purple snail-colored, but the white spotted and the black is not good.

When you rub up very fine colored orseille take and hold it in your hand.(A rough color test on palm of the hand )

Alum must be moist and very white, but that which contains saltness is not fit.

Of "flowers of copper" that fit for use should be either dark blue, a very green leek-color or in general possess a very fine color (Flowers of copper, the flos aeris of pliny, seems generally to be used for the copper oxide)

Methods For Whitening Pearls

Method 1:

If the pearls have a brownish tint as if smoked, it is directed to make a solution of honey in water, to add fig roots pounded f, and to boil down the mixture. Spread it on the pearls as and let it harden, then remove it and wipe off with a linen cloth. If the pearls are not yet white, repeat the process.

Method 2:

Mordant or roughen the pearls by letting them stand in the "urine of a young boy" then covering them with "alum" and let what remains of the mordant dry. They are then put into an earthen vessel with "quicksilver" and "fresh bitchs milk" . Everything was then heated together, the process being regulated . It was cautioned to apply the fuel externally and to maintain a gentle fire .

Notice: lippmann suggested that "quicksilver" above mentioned cannot be mercury, but was probably some finely divided substance of pearly or silvery character, calculated to give the pearly luster .

**A curious method given for whitening a pearl is that of causing it to be swallowed by a cock, afterwards killing the cock and recovering the pearl, "when it will be found to be white."

Method of making Artificial Pearls:

one recipe of the Swedish papyrus that gives the earliest account of methods of making artificial pearls is as follows: Mordant or roughen crystal in the urine of a young boy and powdered alum, then dip it in "quicksilver" and womans milk.

The word "crystal" often meant with the ancient quartz crystal, but it is very evident that with the authors of these notes the term was used in a more comprehensive sense to include other transparent or translucent stones. This use is very evident in the many recipes for imitation of precious stones, where the processes involve a degree of porosity or absorbed power towards colored solutions not possessed either by quartz crystal or by glass, while certain agents, micas, alabasters or other stones possess this property . In case of the above recipe, it is doubtful whether any such mordanting would in a reasonable time roughen the surface of real quartz adequately. The "quicksilver" here mentioned is evidently the same substance of pearly luster previously referred to.

A more elaborate process for making artificial pearls is the following, suggesting the modern "Roman Pearls." : "Take a stone easily pulverized, as glimmer, and pulverize it. Take gum tragacanth and soften it f or ten days in cows milk. When it is soften, dissolve it till it becomes thick like glue. Melt Tyrrhenian wax. Take also the white of an egg and "quicksilver." There must be two parts of "quicksilver" and three parts of stone, but all of other materials one Part each. Mix (the stone and wax), and knead the mixture with the "quicksilver." Soften the paste in the solution of gum and the contents of the egg.

Mix in this way the whole liquid with the paste. Then make the pearls which you wish according to pattern. The paste will soon be like stone. Make deep round impressions and bore them while moist. Let the pearls solidify and polish them well. Treated as they should be, they will excel the natural.

Trade Names of Materials Used in the Recipes

The use of the trade names for the purpose of concealing the character of the substance used where secrecy seemed desirable was not unknown at that period.

There is a passage in Leyden papyrus concerning this and says that: " Interpretation drawn from the sacred writers employ for the purpose of putting at fault the curiosity of the vulgar. The plants and other things which they make use of for the images of the gods have been designated by them in such a way that for lack of understanding they perform a vain labor in following a false path. But we have drawn the interpretation of much of the description and hidden meanings." The secret names as the later alchemists used extensively: "blood of the serpent," "blood of Hephaistos," "blood of Vesta," "blood of lion," "blood of Hercules," "bone of the phyasimian," etc. . It is very probable that the term "quicksilver" in the preceding recipe takes its name from a similarity in appearance rather than from the deliberate attempt to mystify, for those recipes are for the artisan himself, not for the public, but it is also possible that some special constituents of these recipes were intentionally so named as to avoid advertising unnecessarily the more valuable secrets of their business.

The "blood of the dragon for the red resin of the ptreocarpusdraco is doubtless a surviving remnant of the fanciful names used for mystification. The Swedish papyrus has a few other names of the same character, though in general its vocabulary is plain and direct. Thus the Greek word for garlic is used to designate human feces, sometimes used in mordanting wool . The manuscript itself gives this translation .

The term "blood of the dove" used in the papyrus, Von Lhppmann has identified from other sources as meaning red lead or sometimes cinnabar.

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Last Updated: Aug 9th, 2011

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