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Gold Refining Equipment of the Ancient World

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The process of refining gold to remove any impurities that may be found intermixed with the noble metal is an ancient practice that has long been employed by diverse cultures. One of the earliest gold refining equipments employed by ancient metallurgists was the blast furnace – by then a rudimentary structure built with clay, stone, or roughly hewn rocks which were fed with wood or an assortment of biofuels derived from the dried fecal matter of animals. The blast furnace was used in tandem with the crucible, one of the oldest and perhaps still widely used metallurgical instruments to this day. With the methods of gold refining being perfected through the decades, even rustic objects such as clay pots and later on, cast iron equipment were employed in the quest for purer and finer examples of gold.[1]

When the refining method known as salt cementation was discovered, the ancients (more so the Greeks, Lydians, and Egyptians) then employed the most basic object then available – the clay pot – which was filled with layers of impure ores and ash or powdered ceramic, and was then mixed with salt. This was then sealed hermetically and heated to melt the metal encased within and bring about a reaction which purifies the ores. Evidence of vessels employed to part and purify gold have been found in many archeological digs, with some shards or samples of the vessels even embedded with remnant traces of metal that proved their purpose.[2] Later on, this method would be employed by Renaissance alchemists, and would inspire yet another piece of gold refining equipment still in use (albeit only occasionally) to the present age – the alembic.[3] The gold refining process of the latter Middle Ages and the late Renaissance relied heavily on the use of powerful acids to eat away or react with any impurities found in the gold and this curtailed the need for equipment that was non-reactive, durable, and that could withstand acidic damage and even high heat. With the discovery of glass and ceramics, it was possible to develop apparatuses similar to the rudimentary clay ones employed during the earlier periods, but with the added benefits of being more durable than the former. Although the apparatuses have evolved to a certain extent, the methods of refining remained closely similar, with only a few added improvements.

The means to obtain the ores that would precede refining still remained strongly rustic up until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, where steam power and machinery helped to speed things along to a considerable degree. Ore mills, tumblers, and rudimentary grinders were powered by men or beasts of burden prior to the advent of machinery, making use of the surplus and (then allowed) practice of slavery to operate the blast furnaces, mills, and grinders that were needed to obtain and refine the ores into gold. Most of the methods and the equipment employed by the ancients, such as those detailed by the Historian Pliny the Elder in his magnum opus De re metallica[4] has been the prototype for many of the mining equipments use even to this very day. While more advanced and viable methods of gold refining and extraction have been developed over the centuries, much of the theory and practice of refining still owes a great debt and an occasional thanks to ancient equipment that have given rise to much of our industry’s patented machines.



Gold Refining Equipment of the Ancient World - References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blast_furnace
[2] publikationen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/files/5235/BendallChris.pdf
[3] http://www.chemistryexplained.com/A-Ar/Alchemy.html
[4] http://archimedes.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/docuserver/images/archimedes/agric_remet_002_en/downloads/agric_remet_002_en.text.pdf





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