Sunday, March 12, 2017

More Orichalcum, the Atlantis Alloy, Turns Up with Helmets at a Sicilian Shipwreck, What Was its Use?

Ancient Origins

Researchers have recovered yet more ingots, possibly of the fabled metal orichalcum, from a ship that sank off the coast of Sicily around 2,600 years ago. The find has led some to ponder whether the mythical island of Atlantis, where the legendary alloy was supposed to have been created, was real. The shipwreck, however, dates to about seven millennia later than the legend of Atlantis.

 In 2015, researchers diving near the shipwreck found 39 ingots of a copper, zinc, and charcoal alloy that resembles brass. They believe it may be the ancient metal orichalcum. The new cache of the same metal consists of 47 ingots.

Some of the orichalcum ingots found near a 2,600-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Sicily. (Superintendency of the Sea, Sicily)

While the metal is rare, it is not as precious as researchers expected from reading ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s description of it in the Critias dialogue. Plato said only gold was a more precious substance than orichalcum.

Plato said only gold was a more precious substance than orichalcum. Here are two of the recently discovered ingots. (Sebastiano Tusa/ Superintendency of the Sea, Sicily)

Several ancient thinkers mention the alloy in writings - as far back as Hesiod in the 8th century BC. Until 2015, the metal had never been found in any appreciable quantities, says an article about the find on Scholars have debated the origin and composition of orichalcum for a long time.

The shipwreck was found near two others about 1,000 feet (305 meters) off the coast of the Sicilian city of Gela. The wrecks were submerged in about 10 feet (3 meters) of water. Researchers think the ship went down in a storm, while close to the port.

Underwater archaeologists and some of the other artifacts found at the site. (Superintendency of the Sea, Sicily)

"The waters there are a priceless mine of archaeological finds," Adriana Fresina told She works with archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily’s superintendent of the seas.

Greek myth says Cadmus, a Phoenician and the first king of Thebes, invented orichalcum.

Cadmus, the Greek mythological figure who is said to have created orichalcum. (Public Domain)

Christos Djonis wrote an article for Ancient Origins in 2015 about the find of the 39 ingots and said of a news reports at that time:

 “… unfortunately, none of the stories exposed anything new on Atlantis, or on the ‘mystical’ ore, as one reporter called it. Essentially, every editorial capitalized on repeating the same familiar story, raising the usual questions, and sadly arriving at the same past conclusions. Nothing new! As for the particular freight, most reporters connected it to Atlantis, as if Atlantis was around during the Bronze Age (thus, misleading everyone not so familiar with the story) and ignoring the fact that according to Plato, the story of Atlantis took place around 9,600 BC.

Artist’s representation of Atlantis. (Source: BigStockPhoto)

Djonis writes that the orichalcum cargo likely originated on Cyprus, another island in the Mediterranean. Every known alloy containing copper has been produced, including orichalcum, on Cyprus since the 4th millennium BC.

Plato wrote that orichalcum covered the walls, columns and floors of Poseidon’s temple. He wrote the only metal that surpassed it in value was gold. "The outermost wall was coated with brass, the second with tin, and the third, which was the wall of the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum," Plato wrote. Poseidon’s laws were also inscribed onto a pillar of orichalcum, according to Plato.

The city of Gela on Sicily was rich and had many workshops that produced fine objects. Researchers believe the orichalcum pieces were en route to those workshops for use in decorations and fashion objects.

Altogether, the researchers have discovered 47 new ingots of varying sizes and shapes. (Sebastiano Tusa, Soprintendenza del Mare-Regione Sicilia)

Apart from this metal, the shipwreck also yielded two bronze Corinthian helmets.

“The presence of helmets and weapons aboard ships is rather common. They were used against pirate incursions,” Tusa told “Another hypothesis is that they were meant to be an offer to the gods.”

The Corinthian helmets. (Salvo Emma, Soprintendenza del Mare-Regione Sicilia)

Tusa and his colleagues are still at work on the shipwreck and expect to recover more cargo.

Top Image: Some of the orichalcum ingots and the two Corinthian helmets found near a 2,600-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Sicily. Source: Superintendency of the Sea, Sicily

By Mark Miller

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