O – Orichalcum

There are numerous factors that mark a great TV series.  You need some good (or at least charismatic) actors, some good dialogue, and a good plot (or at least one for which you are willing to suspend disbelief).  But one of the factors that can make or break a show is the music.  The opening theme tune in particular can set you up for the programme to come, and a proper theme tune will be an ear worm for the following week, beckoning you to come back and watch again.  One example of this kind of theme tune is, of course, the A Team (daa da da daaaaa da daa da) and another similarly high octane one is MacGyver (“Da da da da da da da da daaaah! Da da daaa!”).  At the risk of offending Patty and Selma, MacGyver (the series) was a classic example of a good idea that was left to run a bit too long.  There were lots of really good features to the show, and whilst there were lots of moments when you’d go “Really??!”, for the most part it just worked and you’d let Angus get on with it, because he was just so brilliantly idiosyncratic.  The made-for-TV films were just a step too far though, with ‘Lost Treasure of Atlantis’ representing a particular nadir, in my opinion, and not just for ‘Hecate’s chariot riding through the sky’ nor…but we’re not here to dissect a TV movie with poor production values.  Naturally the lost treasure turns out to be knowledge (yawn), but orichalcum is also mentioned.

There is a lot of speculation about orichalcum, which if taken as a literal translation means ‘mountain-copper’.  It is strongly linked with the legend of Atlantis, but subsequent use by the poets and in general by the populaces of the ancient world, means that it could be a form of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) with some unspecified tertiary alloying element, platinum or some other metal.  It could simply be a MacGuffin that made its way from literature into the real world.

Whilst platinum might seem like an unlikely possibility, it is a relatively noble metal, which is to say that it is found in a free form, much like gold, and hence, whilst it does turn up in rock formations, it is not part of a mineral as is the case with e.g. copper or iron.  Platinum is – very slightly – more abundant than gold, but both are down near the bottom of the table in terms of natural abundance (recall that oxygen is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and aluminium the most abundant metal).  But platinum’s melting point is more than half again that of gold (gold is ~1061 oC and platinum ~1768 oC).  Very frequently it was viewed as a contaminant, when people worried about it all. It was also viewed as being an odd form of silver, at times, because of the colour.  On the other hand, where it has been used extensively seems to be more my accident or necessity, rather than by determination.  And of course it’s not orangey-red, so I wouldn’t exactly describe it as mountain-copper.

The Romans seem to have taken the word and transmuted it to ‘aurichalcum’, gold-copper, and gold-copper alloys are known.  However, back in 2015, a wrecked boat, dated to around the 5th or 6th century was found, carrying 39 ingots of an unusual copper-zinc (i.e. brass, as opposed to bronze which is copper-tin) alloy, with small but significant traces of nickel, lead and iron.  This wreck would date from around 100 to 150 years or so (roughly) before Plato was writing, and whilst he stipulated Atlantis existing some nine millennia before, modern scholarship points to a number of relatively advanced/sophisticated city-state led cultures, devastated by natural disasters (including earthquakes and tidal waves that would fit very well as the home port of this lost ship and the sole provider of an unusual metal.  I don’t think that anyone has followed up on this, and my metallurgy is a little, ahem, rusty.  I’m really not sure why the iron would be there, but the lead would help processing, particularly cutting and scoring actions, and the nickel would tend to make the alloy a little more silvery rather than golden.  Iron might increase the hardness, although that is a guess, and would seem to offset the addition of lead.

So if a mullet-haired chap offers you some ancient metal, even if he offers to scratch it with the blade of his pen-knife, you’re probably best off passing.

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8 thoughts on “O – Orichalcum

  1. 1) I always thought that nitrogen (possibly in the dinitrogen form) was the most common element. Although I do note that you carefully specify “in the Earth’s crust”. Nitrogen is 78% in the atmosphere.

    2) When did we learn that MacGuyver’s first name was Angus? That one must have slipped past me.

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    1. 1) Definition is all important! The most abundant element in the Universe is hydrogen (~75%) and then helium (~25 %): Everything else accounts for less than 1%. o_0

      2) can’t remember – I think it might be right at the beginning, but then everyone calls him Mac.

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  2. So the first time I ever heard the word orichalcum, it was in an anime movie. They seemed to be talking about a particular kind of metal statue. All this time, I’ve thought an orichalcum was a kind of statue, but I guess they were really referring to the metal the statue was made of.

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      1. Absolutely. It would be interesting to see the original. I think in those circumstances it is ok to use the original word, assuming that there is an appropriate spelling in a suitable script. On the otherhand, being a translator is a tough gig and I try and avoid being too judgemental!

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