Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/December 1887/The Metals of Ancient Chaldea

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

concepts, and sensations without percepts. He maintains that no perception occurs without a generalizing movement. "All percepts are conceptual." This being so, what becomes of the claim that brutes, with feeling and ability to perceive, do not form concepts? And if, as the author reluctantly does in one place, we concede that perception may exist with only "incipient concepts," what should prevent the development of the generalizing power in successive individuals to the degree that it is found in the highest intelligence?

The considerations adduced by Professor Müller on the question of the origin of species, and the descent of man, present nothing, therefore, for the "Darwinian" to answer, except the fact that man has articulate language, and brutes do not have it. This fact has been allowed its full weight in the great discussions upon the descent of man, of which our limits will not permit us to give even a résumé. It is sufficient to remark that whatever strength may lie in the argument from this circumstance, its force is not great enough to countervail the many converging proofs of the Darwinian hypothesis; and, further, we may safely reiterate with Darwin that "the faculty of articulate speech in itself does not offer any insuperable objection to the belief that man has been developed from some lower animal." Indeed, the wonder is that Professor Müller's own philosophy of mind should not have caused him to see that the difference between the mind of the brute and the mind of man is one of degree, not of kind. He lays great stress on the unity of mental action. The mind is one in all its exercises. There is no sensation without perception, and so forth, as already instanced. If, then, he can not doubt that a lower animal has some intelligence, the inference must be that the essential characters of the other mental exercises are in the animal's intelligence, at least in embryo. We may believe that Professor Müller is right in much of what he says as to the unity of cognitive exercises. Attention to an object presented, association and representation, are the primary mental processes, and each is necessary to the other. Given these, all the products of thought that we designate by such terms as concepts, inferences, fictions, memories, are readily explicable and their relations to each other made manifest. The chief difference between the mind of man and that of the brute lies in the complexity of association and representation. Man's inferences reach farther, and bis generalizations are higher, more complex, and more abstract. It is the same sort of difference which subsists between the intellectually cultivated man and the savage, though, of course, this difference is greater when we compare man with even the higher brutes. But in the latter the same processes are observable. They attend, they associate, they represent; they feel and they act; they have nervous systems; they have mental communication. I see no escape from the conclusion that they generalize, and I would not be at all surprised if it should some time happen that an ape be taught to use articulate language. Much more might be remarked in refutation of Professor Müller's thesis, but I have probably already tired the reader's patience. I hope enough has been said to show that this learned author has not even brought out a clear and consistent statement of his own position, much less to have effected any "revolution in philosophy," I have not discussed his theory of the formation of roots in language, for such a discussion seems unnecessary after the examination thus far made into the nature of thought. Nor do I stop to consider his lament over the neglect of Kant among later English thinkers. I can see no evidence that Kant has been neglected or failed to receive the attention that is his due; but all this is quite irrelevant to Professor Müller's argument. As for the latter it is self-contradicted in his own book, and any thorough analysis of mental operations would, as seems to me, independently demonstrate its fallaciousness. Altogether, the impression made upon the reader of "The Science of Thought" is that of a work written by a man, who, possessed by his favorite science, endeavors to use it for the explanation of all other sciences without much reference to the results which an unbiased and dispassionate study of those sciences would yield.

Professor Müller informs us that his book was written for himself and for a few friends, with whom he has been traveling for many years on the same road. We are grateful for the permission to join this band of peripatetics for the while, and, if pressing duties elsewhere oblige us to part from them, we can cordially thank Professor Müller for a charming entertainment, reserving, of course, to ourselves that liberty, which all good society allows, of afterward abusing the company.

Rule Segment - Span - 40px.svg Rule Segment - Span - 40px.svg Rule Segment - Flare Left - 12px.svg Rule Segment - Span - 5px.svg Rule Segment - Circle - 6px.svg Rule Segment - Span - 5px.svg Rule Segment - Flare Right - 12px.svg Rule Segment - Span - 40px.svg Rule Segment - Span - 40px.svg

IN the pursuit of my studies of the origins of alchemy and the metals of antiquity, I have had occasion to examine substances recovered from the Palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, and from the excavations made by M. de Sarzec at Tello, as they are preserved in the Museum of the Louvre. I intend to describe the results of my analyses, and then to examine a number of new or little-known documents relative to the origin of the tin used by the ancients in the manufacture of bronze.

In the course of his excavations, in 1854, M. Place discovered, under one of the angular stones of the Palace of Sargon, at Khorsabad, a stone chest containing votive tablets, covered with very clear cuneiform inscriptions commemorating the foundation of the building, b. c. 706. According to M. Place, there were five of these tablets; but the form of the inscriptions indicates that there were seven of them, designated by names. Only four of them are in the Louvre Museum, the other three are lost. The four which are known bear long and detailed inscriptions, of which M. Oppert has published translations of three in M. Place's work on "Nineveh and Assyria." The sense is nearly the same in all the three, and relates to the construction of the palace. According to this translation, the tablets were of gold> silver, copper, and two other substances, the names of which have been identified with lead and tin—the last rather doubtfully, according to M. Oppert; and, lastly, of two additional substances, bearing the determinatives of stones employed as materials of construction, which are considered to be marble and alabaster. Unfortunately, the several tablets do not contain separately the name of the material of which they are made. I have examined the four tablets in the Louvre. They are rectangular, and a few millimetres in thickness. The golden plate is the thinnest, and may be easily recognized, although it has lost its brightness. It weighs about 167 grammes. It was shaped by hammering. The metal is not alloyed in any notable proportion. The silver plate is quite or nearly as pure. It is slightly blackened on the surface by the formation of a sulphuret, as usually happens to silver which has been exposed for a long time to atmospheric agencies. It weighs about 435 grammes.

I give these weights as matters of fact, without prepossession on the question of whether they corresponded with the relative values of the metals at the time of the foundation of the palace.

The plate supposed to be of copper is deeply altered and partly exfoliated by oxidation. It weighs, in its present condition, 952 grammes, which shows that its dimensions were considerably greater than those of the other two plates. Its color is a dark red, which is determined for the most part by the presence of the protoxide of copper. It is not pure copper, but bronze; a specimen, filed off from the edge, contained, by analysis, tin, 10·04; copper, 85·25; oxygen, etc., 4·71.

Neither lead nor zinc, nor any other metal, is found in noticeable quantity. The proportion of tin corresponds with that in golden-yellow bronze, but the presence of protoxide of copper has changed the color. This composition is also found in a large number of ancient bronzes; of which I will mention only an Egyptian mirror of the seventeenth or eighteenth century b. c., which I once analyzed for M. Marriette. It contained 9 parts of tin and 91 of copper.

The fourth tablet is the most interesting of all, on account of its composition. It weighs about 185 grammes. It is composed of a bright white substance, hard and opaque, carefully cut and polished. It had till now been thought to be of a metallic oxide, and had first been designated as the antimony tablet; others said tin, because it was thought to have been made of a metal which time had gradually oxidized. But neither antimony nor tin possesses the property of undergoing a change of this kind, especially when inclosed in a stone chest. At most, lead and zinc are susceptible of being converted into oxide or carbonate in a moist medium; but under such conditions they are disintegrated and fall into dust, while the tablet is quite compact and covered with a very fine and extremely clear inscription. Its real nature was therefore a riddle. We then first carefully sounded it, and ascertained that there was no central metallic leaf in its thickness. Chemical analysis indicated that it was a pure, crystallized carbonate of magnesia—a substance that is more refractory to dilute acids and atmospheric agencies than carbonate of lime. The polishing of the tablet appeared to have been completed with the aid of an almost insensible trace of fatty matter, which manifested itself on calcination. We observe here that our magnesia and its salts were not known in antiquity and the middle ages, and that pure and crystallized carbonate of magnesia is a very rare mineral, and was not known by Haüy at the beginning of the present century. But in intimate association with carbonate of lime it constitutes dolomite, a very abundant rock. Carbonate of magnesia is found principally in veins intercalated in talcose schists, serpentine, and other magnesian silicates, where it results from the slow decomposition of the rocks by natural agencies. The material of the tablet in question also includes a few traces of silica, which indicate the same origin. The choice of so exceptional a mineral for the fabrication of a sacred tablet can not have been made by chance. It doubtless responded to some particular religious idea. At any rate, it proves that the Assyrians were acquainted with the carbonate of magnesia as a proper substance. To what word did this tablet correspond in the inscription, in which it appears to figure under the name of one of the supposed metals? Notwithstanding the absence of a special denomination on this tablet, M. Oppert believes that it was designated by the word a-bar, which had been supposed to mean tin. I thought it might be useful, in the effort to obtain new light in this matter, to analyze the substance of which the great bulls in the Louvre Museum are made, and see if it contained dolomite. The analysis determined, however, that this matter was a crystallized carbonate of lime representing the physical constitution of marble, or rather of that variety of limestone which was formerly confounded, under the name of alabaster, with anhydrous sulphate of lime.

While I was studying the tablets of Khorsabad, M. Heuzey called my attention to some metallic fragments of a vase and a votive figurine which came from M. de Sarzec's excavations at Tello. The fragment represents a portion of a cylindrical circular band which formed the mouth of a cast vase, and had been prepared by melting and casting. A part of the throat that separated this band from the body of the vase proper can still be seen. It is very simple in form, and without any inscription or even light delineation. The surface is covered with a very thin, yellowish-black patina. The mass is formed of a brilliant black metal, the fracture of which exhibits voluminous, glittering crystals, of very hard but fragile material. On analysis it appeared to be nearly pure metallic antimony, containing no notable proportion either of copper, lead, bismuth, or zinc, but only some traces of iron. The patina was an oxysulphuret, which had been formed by the action of the traces of sulphureted hydrogen which exist in the atmosphere. The existence of such a fragment—of a cast vase of pure antimony—is singular, for this metal is not employed pure for any such use in modern industry, although it is often used in alloys; and I know of no similar example in the vessels either of the present or of past times. I had been told, however, that the Japanese used antimony in their manufactures, and I had been presented with a little winged dolphin which was supposed to be made of antimony. But the analysis of this dolphin showed that it was composed of zinc and other associated metals, and was far from being formed of pure antimony. If pure antimony has really been employed by the Japanese—which I doubt—there would have been a curious relation with ancient Chaldean customs.

An extremely curious circumstance, moreover, is the finding of this authentic manufactured fragment of antimony at Tello, a place which had been uninhabited since the time of the Parthians, and which contains the remains of the oldest Chaldean civilization. Antimony, in fact, is supposed not to have been known to the ancients, and not to have been discovered till toward the fifteenth century. Yet we find that the ancients were very well acquainted with our sulphuret of antimony, a natural mineral which they called stibium or stimme, and which they employed for many uses, particularly in medicine. A passage in Dioscorides, repeated by Pliny, leads me to believe that metallic antimony had been obtained in his time. We read, in short, in Dioscorides ("Materia Medica," book iv, chapter xcix): "This mineral is burned by placing it on coals and blowing them to incandescence; if the calcining is prolonged, it changes into lead (μολνθδοῡῑαι)." Pliny says, likewise ("Hist. Nat.," book xxxiii, chapter xxxiv): "The calcining must be done with precaution, in order not to change it into lead (ne plumbum fiat)." These observations agree with phenomena well known to chemists. In fact, the calcining of sulphuret of antimony, particularly in the presence of charcoal, may easily bring it to the condition of fusible and metallic antimony, a substance which Pliny and his contemporaries confounded along with all other dark and easily fusible metals, with lead. The existence of the Tello vase proves that in Mesopotamia, likewise, and in probably a much more ancient age, they had tried to make cast vases with this supposed variety of lead, which was less liable to change than ordinary lead.

The metallic votive figurine of Tello suggests no less curious observations. It represents a divine personage, kneeling and holding a kind of metallic point or cone. It has engraved upon it the name of