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Hepatizon – The Black Bronze of Corinth

The ancients were reputed to possess knowledge that no one in this modern era has any inkling of, and this belief has somewhat shrouded everything dating from the early ages of antiquity with a somewhat mysterious, if not mystical allure. Of the many things the ancients were known for, they had a special knack for metallurgical experimentation, creating a vast line of inimitable, highly artistic, and downright valuable specimens of metallurgical genius. Many of the metals that were common in the olden times are now lost to us, and whatever mention of these metals in the annals of history has been used by modern authors of fiction as crafty plot devices. This is however, a staple of literature that too was adopted from the earliest types of literature dating back to ancient times. Nowadays, nearly anything smacking of the ancient is always attributed some kind of mystical capacity, and this bodes true for items and materials alike. One of the most mysterious metals of the ancient world is known as hepatizon, a strange and precious metal that retains no known sample in this modern age. So called because of its blackish hue, hepatizon comes from the Greek work hepar, which meant ‘liver’. Known throughout the ancient world as black Corinthian bronze, it was described by Pliny the Elder as the fourth variety of Corinthian bronze, noted for its distinct dark shade. [1]

Hepatizon was an alloy of copper, gold, and silver, especially made for its aesthetically pleasing dark coloration resembling the color of a liver. Overtime, hepatizon would attain a patina which was said to enhance its sheen and appearance. This aesthetic property made it highly prized in ancient times, and was second only to the more precious Corinthian bronzes that were of a more golden hue. While the employment of hepatizon is relatively unknown, it is thought that its distinct qualities made it highly sought after for the creation of statues and objets d’art, being, reputedly, more prized than bronzes from other well-known metallurgical ‘capitals’ such as Delos. [2] Pliny the Elder remarks that hepatizon is a metal alloy that was, by the standards of his time, already considerably ancient, with the process for making it irrevocably lost. While the proportions of gold, silver, and copper alloyed together can be figured out by inaccurate guesswork, amounting to some 8% of both gold and silver alloyed to 92% copper, the exact methods of making the alloy to achieve its remarkable bluish-black shade is no longer known, making hepatizon a lost, inimitable metal. Similar alloys of copper, gold and silver have been found outside of Europe, as the Japanese have been making similar ornamental alloys of a reputedly similar character known as shakudo, although shakudo is thought to be more recent than the antiquated hepatizon.

Hepatizon was also mentioned in John Murray's 1875 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities - however no references are provided save the mention by Pliny - and he states that no examples of hepatizon have been found. It appears that Pliny's may be the only known ancient reference to the alloy. [3]

Because of the relative mysteriousness of the metal, hepatizon has become a staple of many fictional stories, usually attributed as a metal used for the forging of, or the accentuation of hand-held bladed weaponry or armor. [4] Hepatizon is usually attributed with extreme durability or magical properties, welcoming it to the host of metals that populate pulp fiction such as the X-Men comics' adamantium, and the mithril of Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The allure of the ancients still casts a strong pull on our imagination, making many of their unique and mysterious discoveries perfect fodder, if not a downright staple for the perpetuation of myths and legends that transcend the ages.

Hepatizon – References:

[1] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=34:chapter=3
[2] http://www.springerlink.com/content/m46638078q642vr8/?MUD=MP
[3] http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Aes.html
[4] http://herology.wikia.com/wiki/Hepatizon

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