A clever retort
When we define the word retort, we think of a quick, caustic or witty reply.
In other words, it’s a remark which reverses an argument upon its originator. It comes from the Latin retortus, meaning “to be forced to twist back”. All arguments aside, the word retort is also used in chemistry as a closed laboratory vessel with an outlet tube that is used for distillation, sublimation or decomposition by heat.
Alchemy is the process of distilling gold from mercury. Before we can do this however, we must first amalgamate it. Amalgamation has been used for thousands of years to bring free gold particles into contact with mercury. When this happens the two substances mix to form a compound called an amalgam—an alloy of gold and mercury. To be clear, the gold is literally dissolved into the mercury and this allows for the collection of gold particles.
“Clean” mercury can mean different things. Most commonly it means that it is pure enough that any gold touching it will be amalgamated. Today, there are a number of ways to clean mercury and the easiest is to squeeze it through a wet chamois. Clean mercury will pass through the cloth and come out as tiny droplets. This process will filter out any oil that contaminated the mercury.
So by “twisting” this process back on itself, the amalgamated metals can be removed from mercury. Indeed, with a bit of planning and welding, a modern retort can be made of simple pipe. The distillation is performed at low temperature and then heat applied gradually, until 815ºC is reached. Once this is achieved, it usually takes two hours to retort the amalgam.
There are a variety of methods used to cool the mercury vapours coming out of the retort. There are also two types of mercury retorts: vented and non-vented. The non-vented type is simply a boiling vessel and a cooling tube from which the mercury drips into a catch vessel.
The vented retort is made specifically to prevent this problem. In this design, near the exit end of the retort, there is a very small tube which extends upwards a few inches. The purpose of this tube is to allow you to immerse the exit end of the retort in water. If your heat source should fail and the temperature in the “hot vessel” drop, air will be sucked in through the small tube instead of water through the exit. In any case, if mercury is retorted then for all practical purposes it is pure. Any amalgamated metals such as gold will be left behind in the retort.
Retorts are operated under a slightly negative pressure and mercury vapour is usually exhausted into a water condensation system. The vapour is cooled rapidly to below the boiling point and the liquid mercury is collected under water to avoid re-evaporation. The mercury produce has small quantities of gold, silver and other metals but is usually of sufficient purity to be reused for amalgamation. Mercury losses vary between 0.2-0.4% for each distillation cycle.
The Great Pyramid of Giza then, is a vented mercury retort. Built for a prosperous culture that needed refined gold their design (below) remains almost identical to the diagram (above). What is most apparent here though, is the SCALE of this endeavour and the wealth it would have created.
To feed this process, Egypt was a land rich in precious metals. In addition to the resources of the Eastern Desert, Egypt had access to the riches of Nubia which was reflected in its ancient name, nbw (the Egyptian word for gold). Indeed, the staggering amount of gold found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (the only ancient Egyptian royal burial to be found intact) illustrates almost unfathomable wealth.
So over the centuries the Egyptians refined thousands of tons of gold and other precious metals at Giza. Applications included jewellery, statues, tombs, temples and of course MONEY. This is nowhere better remembered than on the back of the American dollar bill:
Above: the reason Mercury is associated with commerce
If The Philosopher’s Stone “turns base metals into gold,” then what it really refers to is distilling the amalgamated metals from mercury and leaving only the gold behind. This magical process made Egypt the wealthiest country in the world because it had vast mineral deposits and the largest retorts to process them.
The original Egyptian word for pyramid, per-neter, signifies a structure or shape that was designed to “generate, transform and transmit energy.” These words suggest that the pyramidal shape itself was designed to tap into and direct some form of power. “In God We Trust” then, has an esoteric meaning when we consider the synthesis of sound and light: a scalar wave.