In 2014, an ancient Greek shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Gela, Sicily. The ship dates to the 6th century B.C. and was transporting cargo from Greece or Asia Minor to Gela when it sank, probably in storm, just 1,000 feet from the coast. Divers recovered 39 ingots of a brass-like alloy from the wreck unlike any other metal discovered on ancient shipwrecks.
Archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa, head of Sicily’s Superintendency of the Sea, suspected the ingots might be the mysterious ancient metal orichalcum, a material about which much has been said and almost nothing known. In the dialogue Critias, the 4th century B.C. philosopher Plato describes orichalcum as a material already legendary in his time. The metal features prominently in his description of the fabled wealth of the lost island of Atlantis.
For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold.
And because Atlantis had something of a Vegas thing going on, they didn’t refrain from showing off their riches.
The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.
In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.
Each of the ten kings in his own division and in his own city had the absolute control of the citizens, and, in most cases,
of the laws, punishing and slaying whomsoever he would. Now the order of precedence among them and their mutual relations were regulated by the commands of Poseidon which the law had handed down. These were inscribed by the first kings on a pillar of orichalcum, which was situated in the middle of the island, at the temple of Poseidon….
The composition of this metal has been subject to much debate. Most scholars lean towards it being a brass-like alloy of zinc and copper that the ancients created by mixing zinc ore, copper and charcoal in a crucible. That could create a metal that “flashed with red light.” There is no consensus on this, however, and other theories abound. The Gela ingots were subjected to X-ray fluorescence analysis and were found to be made of an alloy of 75-80% copper, 15-20% zinc and trace amounts of nickel, lead and iron. This fits neatly with the zinc-copper alloy theory of orichalcum.
It makes sense that a valuable cargo like this would be headed to Gela. Founded around 688 B.C. by Greek colonists, Gela (then known as Ghelas) became an important Greek colony almost immediately. Only a century later, around the time when the ship sank, Gela was the most important city in Sicily. It even had its own offshoot colony, Agrigento, home of the Temple of Concord and that awesome story about the archbishop, the prostitute conspiracy and the trial with the shocking twist ending. Its government and residents had access to the best artisans and could afford the most prized materials.
The shipwreck is still being excavated. Earlier this month, divers discovered 47 more ingots of the alleged orichalcum, bring the total haul to a mind-boggling 86. They also recovered an amphora, a bottle from Massalia (modern-day Marseille), the first Greek colony in what is today France, and a pair of Corinthian helmets in outstanding condition. It’s not clear whether all of these artifacts were cargo on the same ship — there are two other known archaic shipwrecks in the area — but they were found in close proximity in a topographically homogeneous area, so Tusa believes they were indeed shipmates.