Gold shines in the human imagination as that most powerful of metals. Its prominence has led it to be —beyond the object of myths and cosmogonies— also that ultimate end of alchemy, among the most symbolic and mysterious of historical traditions. European chronicles of the 11th century tell that the purest of all gold was that from West Africa, long considered legendary until but very few years ago.

In 2014, Sam Nixon, an Archaeologist at the University of East Anglia, reconstructed an ancient method used specifically in Mali, to separate gold from other minerals that naturally accompany it. In the West, the traditional process for doing so involved the use of highly toxic and dangerous mercury. It all began when, while visiting Tademekka, Mali, Nixon found molds and cauldrons containing glass stained with traces of gold. He deduced that such glass must have been part of the legendary process of purifying gold.

Based on his findings, along with Professor Thilo Rehren, a specialist in ancient technologies, Nixon published a study suggesting that in this part of Mali, the processes for purifying gold involved heating the metal with sand and glass so as to separate gold from the particles of other minerals. In carrying out the method themselves, the authors obtained gold with a purity that can only be compared to that resulting from the mercury process.

Following the publication of Nixon and Rehren’s research, Dr. Marc Waldon of Northwestern University set out to test the method that had until then had been but a myth. The result left him speechless, as the African process of gold purification worked perfectly.

The process can be explained in geographical terms. As it was at a strategic point along ancient Saharan trade routes, the region learned of the value of gold through contact with Arab traders. African civilizations in the area used gold only for ornamentation: their currency was usually beads made of glass. Nixon discovered that these same societies had developed other sophisticated metallurgical processes including with steel and copper.

The gold purification process developed in Mali —their only and very homegrown alchemy— is not recorded in any prior historical record. The people of the Tadmekkan region discovered how to purify the valuable yellow metal through a method safer than that used for centuries by civilizations using gold as a currency of exchange. Thus, we’re reminded that alchemy, thought to be a merely symbolic practice, belongs to no time or place.

Image: PIX1861 – Public domain

Gold shines in the human imagination as that most powerful of metals. Its prominence has led it to be —beyond the object of myths and cosmogonies— also that ultimate end of alchemy, among the most symbolic and mysterious of historical traditions. European chronicles of the 11th century tell that the purest of all gold was that from West Africa, long considered legendary until but very few years ago.

In 2014, Sam Nixon, an Archaeologist at the University of East Anglia, reconstructed an ancient method used specifically in Mali, to separate gold from other minerals that naturally accompany it. In the West, the traditional process for doing so involved the use of highly toxic and dangerous mercury. It all began when, while visiting Tademekka, Mali, Nixon found molds and cauldrons containing glass stained with traces of gold. He deduced that such glass must have been part of the legendary process of purifying gold.

Based on his findings, along with Professor Thilo Rehren, a specialist in ancient technologies, Nixon published a study suggesting that in this part of Mali, the processes for purifying gold involved heating the metal with sand and glass so as to separate gold from the particles of other minerals. In carrying out the method themselves, the authors obtained gold with a purity that can only be compared to that resulting from the mercury process.

Following the publication of Nixon and Rehren’s research, Dr. Marc Waldon of Northwestern University set out to test the method that had until then had been but a myth. The result left him speechless, as the African process of gold purification worked perfectly.

The process can be explained in geographical terms. As it was at a strategic point along ancient Saharan trade routes, the region learned of the value of gold through contact with Arab traders. African civilizations in the area used gold only for ornamentation: their currency was usually beads made of glass. Nixon discovered that these same societies had developed other sophisticated metallurgical processes including with steel and copper.

The gold purification process developed in Mali —their only and very homegrown alchemy— is not recorded in any prior historical record. The people of the Tadmekkan region discovered how to purify the valuable yellow metal through a method safer than that used for centuries by civilizations using gold as a currency of exchange. Thus, we’re reminded that alchemy, thought to be a merely symbolic practice, belongs to no time or place.

Image: PIX1861 – Public domain