View Full Version : Philosophical Tablet owned by Nebuchadnezzar

Dragon's Tail
10-06-2019, 04:07 AM
A stone tablet from Babylon. Property of Nebuchadnezzar (I), king of Babylon:

For 5 shekels of (crushed) pappardillu stone
(one line unintelligible)
you mix one-third mina of mountain honey, 10 shekels of ta, one sulu of
milk, 4 shekels of red alkali (and) one-half sila of wine in one operation. You test
(the mixture) on [coals in the state of glow] ;
if the coals do not produce a flame it is not reliable ;
if the coals produce a flame it is reliable. (Then), you pour (the mixture)
into a stone bowl of algamis a-stone ; you cover it ; you lute (it) with dough. You
heat it for a full day on a smokeless 1 fire. You take (the mixture) out and... (break)
(break)... for five days, it is (not ?) reliable. You soak it in (liquid) [...]. You boil
alum and... in vinegar. You steep (the stone) in lapis lazuli-colored liquid and place it
in the fire and (then you have) a dusu - colored stone.

I've taken the liberty of removing notion marks and reorganizing the text a bit based on the advice in the article, which can be found here: https://archive.org/stream/Oppen1966Alchemy/Oppen_1966_Alchemy_djvu.txt

This text brings some murky problems (or solutions) to the world of alchemy. It seems to be a recipe, or possibly 2 recipes, for producing a false gemstone, which could have been used for bead-making and traded as the genuine article, despite the king knowing it was a deception. That much seems to be the opinion of the author who brought it to light after sitting around in the back of a museum forever. This guy seems to be quite familiar with the gemstone forgeries and trade, suggesting that they aren't something inherently new. The trick was to DYE the material with a TINCTURE.

It also places the origin of alchemy closer to 1200 BCE, before the Egyptians learned the trademarks. At this period, it would have been much easier to dupe unsuspecting traders for valuable items. Alum is mentioned as well, which is a clue that trade with Egypt was well established, and perhaps the Egyptians learned the same trick, using their batteries to forgo gems and silver and straight on to electroplating "gold" artifacts for trade.

It also means that these people had hot furnaces and kilns. At over 1300C, these are hot enough to melt most metals and work with most metallic ores. An important note to add to your collection about technology for the period.

The glass product here isn't really blown or worked, but cast, and appears as a gemstone chunk rather than a precision molded piece, at least that's how it seems to me, so the gem could be sold in whole form and shaped into beads and other ornaments.

Of course, the author also admits that this idea of a "red alkali" was something new at the time of the writing, and other processes used the "ash of plants."

Could be a pre-cursor to the Emerald Tablet. Little side note, dusu stones are believed to be an orange-yellow color and used by lapidaries to represent the sun ;) I'm not sure if any have been recovered, but the Babylonians liked writing about them on ancient tablets.

10-06-2019, 02:20 PM
Thank you for sharing this, DT. Very cool!

Dragon's Tail
10-07-2019, 12:31 AM
NP, Schmuldvich.

Still have some digging to do, but a sila seems to be around 4/5 of a litre. A mina is 60 shekels by weight, and a shekel is around 1/60th of a pound, actually a bit more as the mina was around 1/2 a kilogram. I can't find a reference to SULU anywhere, though the author notes that the amount of milk seems excessive.

So we take around an ounce and a half of and unidentified crushed stone (I'm assuming limestone, but that's just a guess).

We make a mixture of about 5 ounces of mountain honey*, 2.5 ounces of another ingredient that couldn't be interpreted, perhaps a pound of milk?, half a pound of wine, and an ounce of this red alkali to make the "solvent," which must burn when cast on hot coals.

Right away, that's a lot of liquid for it to burst into flames, but perhaps the honey and stone thicken it up enough to do a sort of flame test with it?

* why "mountain honey?" Signal of a deckname? The other ingredients are listed rather plainly and the process explained without mincing words, even if it is in a hurried fashion, but the text specifies mountain honey, which is very curious. Perhaps a coloquial name for an ingredient that has nothing to do with bee honey at all.
In short, to a modern reader this could be a disaster to attempt an interpretation of, but there may be clues in other texts using similar ingredients on glass. We might be able to narrow down the options. In case you are wondering, I want to see what this substance is that involves wine and milk and possibly do some experiments eventually out of curiousity, but as a starting point, this is just a peculiar piece of history.

Anyone have ideas about what a "red alkali" might be referring to? Alkali at the time would reference something bitter, for certain, as taste was the determinate for alkaline and acidic materials.

10-07-2019, 03:47 AM
Thanks for sharing. Dusu stones sound very pretty. Was wondering about the "red alkali" also and found this in the text you shared:

Among the ingredients are a number of difficult words but the essential constituents are evidently crushed pappardiliu - stone and red alkali, the latter to be used
as a binder to fuse the apparently colorful mineral into an imitation bead.