While it isn’t proof that legendary Atlantis ever existed, the discovery of a large quantity of metal bars in an ancient shipwreck is a figurative gold mine for archaeologists.
The ingots discovered by marine archaeologists in 2015 were determined to be an alloy of 75 to 80 percent copper, 15 to 20 percent zinc, and small percentages of nickel, lead, and iron. Professor Sebastiano Tusa, an archaeologist on the team recovering artifacts from a shipwreck dating to the early sixth century BCE off the coast of Sicily, claimed an X-ray fluorescent analysis of the metal had confirmed that it was orichalcum. Orichalcum is a highly prized and possibly mythical reddish metal said to have been mined on Atlantis.
While most scientists believe the island of Atlantis never really existed, others insist it may have been based on a real place that was swallowed by rising sea levels or destroyed by a tsunami. What we know about Atlantis comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, who may have invented the myth to illustrate his theories about politics. He tells us that orichalcum was so plentiful in Atlantis, it flashed with the dazzling “red light” of the metal. Highly prized and second only in value to gold, Plato says orichalcum was mined in the mythical island.
The existence of orichalcum and its composition has been widely debated. Ordinary brass is made from copper and zinc. Though it is not known for certain what orichalcum was, it has variously been describd as a gold-copper alloy, a copper-tin alloy, or copper-zinc brass, or a metal no longer known. The copper content in orichalcum is thought to be responsible for its red color.
Some archaeologists believe that when the ancients referred to orichalchum, they actually meant amber. During the Late Bronze Age, the yellowish fossil resin was one of the main products traded through the Mediterranean along with other materials like silver, bronze, or tin. It makes more sense that orichalcum was amber if it was mined rather than created as an alloy of various metals.
Even if Atlantis is merely a myth, orichalcum could have been a real type of metal used by the ancients. If a metal with a particular reddish tint was highly desirable, large percentages of copper in the alloy could have achieved that result. And if the process used to create such a reddish metal was inordinately complicated, it could have been rare and as valuable as gold. Regardless, the discovery of the ingots and the continuing investigation of the shipwreck will yield valuable information about ancient artisan workshops.