Gela (Italie) : Fabled 'Atlantis Alloy' Recovered in Greater Numbers From Ancient Shipwreck

The newly found ingots of orichalcum come in addition to a cache of bars that were originally recovered in 2015 from the same shipwreck, making up a unique stockpile.

Rossella Lorenzi

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GelaMore ingots of orichalcum, the ancient metal that was purported to be mined at the mythical island of Atlantis, have emerged from the seas of Sicily.

Underwater archaeologists who have been investigating the remains of a ship that sunk 2,600 years ago off the coast of Gela in southern Sicily recovered 47 lumps of the precious alloy earlier this month, along with a jar and two Corinthian helmets.

The newly found ingots come in addition to the 39 orichalcum lumps that were originally recovered in 2015 from the same shipwreck.

"The ship dates to the end the sixth century B.C.," said Sebastiano Tusa, an archaeologist who serves as Sicily's superintendent of the sea. "It was likely caught in a sudden storm and sunk just when it was about to enter the port."

Indeed, the wreck was found about 1,000 feet from Gela's coast at a depth of 10 feet.

The same area contains other two archaic shipwrecks.

"The waters there are a priceless mine of archaeological finds," remarked Adriana Fresina, an archaeologist who works with Tusa.

The 86 ingots found on the sea floor make up a unique stockpile.

Never before discovered in any great quantities, orichalcum has long been considered a mysterious metal, with its composition and origin widely debated.

According to Greek mythology, it was invented by Cadmus, the Phoenician founder and first king of Thebes.

Although orichalcum is mentioned in several ancient writings going back to Hesiod, it was the fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato who made it legendary.

In Plato's Critias dialogue, the Athenian figure Critias claims that orichalcum was mined in the mythical Atlantis and was used to cover Poseidon's temple interior walls, columns, and floors. It was shiny, and Critias suggested that its preciousness was surpassed only by gold.

The metal was so esteemed that in the temple itself stood an orichalcum pillar onto which Poseidon's laws were inscribed, according to the tale.

"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.

Most scholars today agree that orichalcum, though rare, is far from being as precious as Plato's writing would suggest. It is a brass-like alloy, which was made in antiquity by cementation — a process achieved with the reaction of zinc ore, charcoal and copper metal in a crucible.

X-ray fluorescence undertaken by the scientific instrumentation company TQ Technologies for Quality indicated that the recovered ingots are an alloy made with 75 to 80 percent copper, 15 to 20 percent zinc, and small percentages of nickel, lead, and iron.

The ship that carried them was traveling from Greece or Asia Minor to Gela, a wealthy city with an abundance of artisan workshops that specialized in the production of prized artifacts.

The orichalcum ingots were headed for those workshops. There, they would have been used to fashion adornments and decorations.

The recovery of two Corinthian bronze helmets is also noteworthy.

"The presence of helmets and weapons aboard ships is rather common," Tusa said. "They were used against pirate incursions."

"Another hypothesis is that they were meant to be an offer to the gods," he added.

Tusa team is still working to fully excavate the shipwreck and recover its cargo.