A 500-year old mystery surrounding the centre-piece of the alchemists' lab kit has been solved by UCL (University College London) and Cardiff University archaeologists.
Since the Middle Ages, mixing vessels – or crucibles – manufactured in the Hesse region of Germany have been world renowned because of their ability to withstand strong reagents and high temperatures.
Previous work by the team has shown that Hessian crucibles have been found in archaeological sites across the world, including Scandinavia, Central Europe, Spain, Portugal, the UK, and even colonial America. At the time, many people tried to reproduce them but always failed.
Now, writing in Nature, the researchers reveal using petrographic, chemical and X-ray diffraction analysis that Hessian crucible makers made use of an advanced material only properly identified and named in the 20th century.
Dr Marcos Martinón-Torres, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, who led the study, explains: "Our analysis of 50 Hessian and non-Hessian crucibles revealed that the secret component in their manufacture is an aluminium silicate known as mullite (Al6Si2O13).