Institute of Archaeology


The Archaeology of Alchemy and Chemistry in the Early Modern World

Many scholars and the public alike continue to view ancient alchemy largely as the realm of the underground or the esoteric, downplaying its practical dimensions and often assuming that philosophical elucubration was the only significant output of the alchemical laboratory. Traditional studies often place anachronistic boundaries between mineral assayers, alchemists in the quest of the philosopher’s stone, or more “reputable” chemists. Such views are far from historically accurate. This project focuses on the archaeological and analytical study of early modern laboratory remains in Europe and America (c. 1500-1800), coupled with a science-informed review of historical sources.

The focus on material remains allows insight into the practical side of laboratory activities, including aspects such as the provision and quality of the scientific instruments and specifics of their utilisation. The work demonstrates that the philosopher’s stone as a hypothesis was based on empirical data, and that any attempt to tightly demarcate early modern alchemy, chemistry and assaying as different areas of activity is invalid and anachronistic.

Furthermore, this research has unveiled the sophisticated scientific knowledge behind alchemical experiments: contrary to popular belief, early gold seekers should be credited with a substantial contribution to modern science, and with the earliest application of important principles of analytical chemistry.

The level of understanding of scientific laws and of the properties of materials that can be inferred from archaeological data reveals that many scientific achievements were made in al/chemical laboratories, and much earlier than apparent from historical sources. Such discoveries range from fundamental laws such as the conservation of mass and the constant combining proportions to the use of advanced synthetic materials such as mullite, previously thought to have been discovered in the 20th century.

Analyses so far have covered, among others, the famous Renaissance laboratory of Oberstockstall (Austria), the Old Ashmolean laboratory in Oxford (UK), and early colonial laboratory remains in Jamestown (Virginia, US) and Cartier-Roberval (Quebec, Canada)

Related outputs

Selected publications

  • Martinón-Torres, M. 2010. Of marks, prints, pots and becherovka: freemasons' branding in early modern Europe? in A. Bevan and D. Wengrow (eds), Cultures  of Commodity Branding, 213-233. (UCL Institute of Archaeology Publications). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Rehren, Th., Thomas, N. and Mongiatti, A. 2009. Identifying materials, recipes and choices: some suggestions for the study of archaeological cupels, in Archaeometallurgy in Europe 2007: Selected papers from 2nd International Conference, Aquileia, Italy, 17-21 June 2007, 435-445. Milano: Associazione Italiana di Metallurgia.
  • Mongiatti, A., Rehren, Th., Martinón-Torres, M. and Cech, B. 2009. Smelting of gold and silver ores in Renaissance Austria, in Archaeometallurgy in Europe 2007: Selected papers from 2nd International Conference, Aquileia, Italy, 17-21 June 2007, 60-67. Milano: Associazione Italiana di Metallurgia.
  • Mongiatti, A., Martinón-Torres, M., and Rehren, Th. 2009. Testing ores for gold and silver in Renaissance Austria: new techniques, new discoveries, in J-F. Moreau, R. Auger, J. Chabot and A. Herzog (eds), Proceedings of the 36th International Symposium on Archaeometry, April 2006, Quebec, 444/37-444/46. (Les cahiers d'archeologie du CELAT, 25; Series Archeometrie, 7), Quebec: Universite Laval.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. and Rehren, Th. 2009. Post-medieval crucible production and distribution: a study of materials and materialities. Archaeometry 51(1), 49-74.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. and Verrocchio, V. 2008. Triangular crucibles from the Convent of San Domenico in L’Aquila. Archeologia Postmedievale 12, 97-113.
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Thomas, N. Rehren, Th. and Mongiatti, A. 2008. Some problems and potentials of the study of cupellation remains: the case of post-medieval Montbéliard. ArcheoSciences: Revue d’Archeometrie 32, 59-70.
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Freestone, I. C., Hunt, A. and Rehren, Th. 2008. Mass-produced mullite crucibles in medieval Europe: manufacture and material properties. Journal of the American Ceramic Society 91(5), 2071-2074.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. 2008. Los orígenes alquímicos de la química moderna: una perspectiva arqueológica. Anales de Química 104(4), 310-317.
  • Rehren, Th. and Martinón-Torres, M. 2008. Naturam ars imitata: European brassmaking between craft and science, in M. Martinón-Torres and Th. Rehren (eds), Archaeology, History and Science: Integrating Approaches to Ancient Materials, 167-188 (UCL Institute of Archaeology Publications). Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. and Rehren, Th. 2007. Trials and errors in search of mineral wealth: metallurgical experiments in early colonial Jamestown. Rittenhouse: the Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise 21: 82-97Martinón-Torres, M. 2007. The tools of the chymist: archaeological and scientific analyses of early modern laboratories, in L. M. Principe (ed), Chymists and Chymistry: Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, 149-163. Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications and Chemical Heritage Foundation.
  • Thomas, N., Martinón-Torres, M., Goy, C. and Rehren, Th. 2006. La fouille archéologique du quartier Velotte à Montbéliard : nouvelles données sur des opérations de chimie oubliées, Bulletin de la Société d’émulation de Montbéliard 129, 441-465.
  • Martinón-Torres, M., Rehren, Th. and Freestone, I. C. 2006. Mullite and the mystery of Hessian wares. Nature 444, 437-438 (23 November 2006).
  • Martinón-Torres, M. and Rehren, Th. 2006. The ‘mystery’ of the post-medieval triangular crucibles reconsidered – a global perspective, in J. Pérez-Arantegui (ed), Proceedings of the 34th International Symposium on Archaeometry, Zaragoza, 3-7 May 2004 , 515-524. Zaragoza: Institución Fernando el Católico.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. and Rehren, Th. 2005. Ceramic materials in fire assay practices: a case study of 16th-century laboratory equipment, in M. I. Prudencio, M. I. Dias and J. C. Waerenborgh (eds), Understanding people through their pottery, 139-149 (Trabalhos de Arqueologia 42). Lisbon: Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia.
  • Martinón-Torres, M. and Rehren, Th. 2005. Alchemy, chemistry and metallurgy in Renaissance Europe. A wider context for fire assay remains. Historical Metallurgy 39(1), 14-31.Martinón-Torres, M. 2003. Química en arqueología y la arqueología de la química: el ensayo. Gallaecia 22, 383-405.

Further dissemination and impact

  • Marcos Martinón-Torres has been invited to deliver over 20 invited talks about this project to academics and the public in Europe and the US, in addition to ordinary conference papers and presentations.
  • The project has also attracted significant coverage in media and popular magazines.


  • Current funding: AHRC Fellowship
  • Previous funding: AHRB, Caixanova, Barrié de la Maza Foundation, EU Marie Curie Early Stage Training Action in Science, Conservation and Archaeology (FP6)