A mythical metal said by ancient Greeks to be found in the lost city of Atlantis has been recovered from a ship that sunk 2,600 years ago off the coast of Sicily.
Marine archaeologists found 39 ingots of what they believe is ‘orichalcum’ on the sandy seabed among the wreck of a trading vessel that sank 1,000 feet off the coast of the town of Gela, in sourthern Sicily.
The wreck is the fifth ancient ship to be recovered off the coast of the town.
Scroll down for video
This map of Atlantis – oriented with south at the top – was drawn by 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who pinpointed the mythical continent as being in the mid-Atlantic before it was lost to the sea
It is thought that it had been carrying cargo from either Greece or Asia Minor when it was caught in a storm and sunk.
SEA-GOING SUPERPOWER, OR WAS PLATO PLAYING POLITICS?
Atlantis was first described by the Greek philosopher Plato more than 2,000 years ago.
While many believe the story is a myth created by Plato to illustrate his theories about politics, others insist it is based on a real historical disaster.
According to Plato’s account, written around 360BC, Atlantis was a major sea power located in the Atlantic.
It was larger than ancient Libya and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) put together, and was ‘the way to the other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent’.
His account included detailed descriptions of the island – with mountains in the north and along the coast, and a plain in the south.
Its kings were descended from Poseidon – the god of sea – but their divine lineage became diluted as they mixed with mortals.
By around 9600 BC the island had conquered much of Western Europe and Africa and enslaved its enemies.
This date would make the city nearly as old as the end of the last ice age and pre-dates the earliest recorded city states, found in what is now Iraq, so seems rather unlikely.
After a failed attempt to invade Athens, the entire island sank into the sea ‘in a single day and night of misfortune’.
Over the centuries, scholars have attempted to locate the real Atlantis – believing the account was based on a real ancient superpower.
One of the most plausible theories is that Plato was describing the Minoan civilisation on Crete and the neighbouring island of Santorini which was devastated by a massive volcanic eruption around 1600BC.
Some believe the Atlantis myth was inspired by the Black Sea floods of around 5000BC – an event that may have also generated the flood stories which appeared in the Old Testament.
Professor Sebastiano Tusa, an archaeologist at the office of the Superintendent of the Sea in Sicily, claimed the metal they had discovered in the remains of the ship was probably the mythical and highly prized red metal orichalcum.
Analysis of the metal ingots revealed they were made from an alloy of copper and zinc with traces of nickel, lead and iron.
Speaking to Discovery News, Professor Tusa said: ‘Nothing similar has ever been found.
‘We knew orichalcum from ancient texts and a few ornamental objects.
‘The wreck dates to the first half of the sixth century.
‘It was found about 1,000 feet from Gela’s coast at a depth of 10 feet.’
If the metal discovered by Professor Tusa and his team is really the mythical orichalcum, then it lends support to the idea of Atlantis as being a real place.
The existence of the island is greatly debated among historians and archaeologists.
Some believe it is entirely fictional while others claim stories of the ‘Island of Atlas’ may have been based on a real historical location that was drowned by rising sea levels or a tsunami.
The Egyptian city of Heracleion, for example, was lost 1,200 years ago when it was engulfed by the sea.
Most of the legend of Atlantis comes from the work of the Greek philosopher Plato, who describes how the great nation was submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean after falling out of favour with the Gods.
Plato mentions orichalcum in the Critias dialogue and describes Atlantis as flashing with the ‘red light’ of the metal.
He wrote that orichalcum was highly prized and second only in value to gold. It was mined in the mythical island and covered the surfaces of Poseidon’s temple.
The existence of this metal and its composition has since been widely debated, but it is commonly thought to be a brass-like alloy. Brass is made from copper and zinc.
It is thought to have been made through a process called cementation, which reacts zinc ore with charcoal and copper in a crucible.
X-ray fluorescence of the ingots found off the coast of Gela show they were made from 75-80 per cent copper, 15-20 per cent zinc and small amounts of nickel, lead and iron.
Professor Tusa said: ‘The finding confirms that about a century after its foundation in 689BC, Gela grew to become a wealthy city with artisan workshops specialised in the production of prized artifacts.’
Professor Sebastiano Tusa, centre, and his team of divers discovered the metal ignots of what they believe to be the mythical metal of orichalcum on a 2,600-year-old shipwreck found off the coast of Gela in Sicily
The shipwreck with the ingots was found 1,000 feet off shore of the town of Gela in the sourthern part of Sicily
Statues like this one above from the sunken Egyptian city of Heracleion have recently been rediscovered by marine archaeologists, raising hopes that if Atlantis did ever exist then it may still be found under the sea
However, some experts disagree about the composition of orichalcum. Enrico Mattievich, a former physics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, believes the metal has its origins in the Chavin civilisation that developed in the Peruvian Andes in around 1,200 BC.
He claims the metal alloy is made from copper, gold and silver.
He claims that the discovery off the coast of Gela is not true orichalcum.
Indeed in Ancient Rome, coins made from brass were also said to be made from orichalcum.
The lost civilisation of Atlantis was reputed to have many treasures including buildings clad in the metal orichalcum that were lost to the sea after the people there apparently fell out of favour with the gods
There have been many locations around the world suggested as potential sites for the lost island of Atlantis