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Message Subject Technology of Craftsmanship
Poster Handle Coming Into Existence
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Medieval Africans Had a Unique Process for Purifying Gold With Glass
And scientists in Illinois have recreated it.

When Sam Nixon, an archaeologist with the British Museum, excavated ancient coin molds in Tadmekka, Mali, in 2005, it triggered a several-year exploration of how medieval Africans purified the gold they were using for their currency. Nixon had found little droplets of highly refined gold left over in the molds—which have been dated to the 11th century—as well as curious fragments of glass. Now scientists have recreated the advanced process behind the purification method they used then.

“This is the first time in the archaeological record that we saw glass being used to be able to refine gold,” says Marc Walton, codirector of the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, a collaboration between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago. “The glass appeared to be material that was [actually] recycled glass materials … so it really shows the industriousness and creativity of the craftsmen, who understood the properties of gold and glass enough to [use them for] this process of refining gold.” The recycled glass materials were remnants of broken vessels. Tadmekka was a town right in the middle of the trans-Saharan caravan route, so Nixon uncovered several types of material culture that had to do with trade, namely molds for “bald dinar,” or coins that hadn’t been stamped with the name of a mint (or a 10th-century equivalent of one).
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