Ancient texts from the Greeks and Romans continuously mention a very valuable metal called orichalcum. It no longer exists today, and historians have debated whether it was a unique metal, or a gold-containing alloy with a recipe lost to the ages. According to Plato’s Critias, orichalcum was sourced only from Atlantis, where it was used to craft much of the mythical city’s wondrous architecture. But earlier this year, a team of divers claimed to have found 39 ingots of the material in the remains of a sixth century shipwreck just 10 feet beneath the ocean’s surface near Sicily.
Scientists speculate that the cargo ship was delivering the ingots from Greece or Asia Minor to the city of Gela in southern Sicily. Around that time, Gela was about 100 years old, and had grown into wealthy a populace with many skilled artisans – who were likely eager to work with these orichalcum ingots that never arrived to port.
An XRF analysis of the ingots revealed that they are an alloy containing:
• 75-80% copper
• 15-20% percent zinc
• small levels of nickel, lead and iron
This lends proof to the most widely accepted theory about orichalcum – that it was a brass-like alloy forged through the ancient refining technique of cementation. As excavation of the shipwreck continues, scholars hope to learn more about orichalcum and the economy of ancient Sicily.