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  • Medieval Marvels: Carving Liquid for Stone and Marble July 20, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    carving marble

    Beach has sometimes looked, in this blog, at the marvellous works of Gervase of Tilbury, 104. Here is another from his book of curiosities. A liquid that allows for the moulding of stones.

    In our times, during the papacy of Alexander III [1155-1181], when I was a boy, a phial was found at Rome full of a milky liquid: when stones of any kind had been sprinkled with this liquid, they allowed themselves to be carved just as the hand of the person trying to work them intended. The phial had been unearthed in a very ancient palace; its materials and workmanship aroused the wonder of the Roman people.

    Sane temporalibus nostris sub papa Alexandro tercio, dum puer eram, inuenta est Rome fiala plena liquore lacteo, quo conspersa omnia lapidum general sculpturam talem recipiebant qualem manus insculpere uolentis protrahebat. Erat autem fiala ex antiquissimo palacio elicita, cuius material aut artificium populous Romanus admirabatur.

    Lots of objections here: would a liquid have survived? How was its purpose discovered? There was presumably very little of it, how often could it be used? But leaving these aside could any substance like that described by Gervase have actually worked these miracles? drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com Gervase also describes a substance from Jewish tradition made from the blood of a worm, called tanir: sanguine uermiculi, quem dicunt tanir, which made the working of marble easy.

    Of course in neither case does Gervase talk about a substance that burnt stone away or made it plastic. Perhaps this was just ‘holy water’ and after it had been sprinkled carving felt easier?

    Allegedly Solomon discovered the use of Tanir in this way. he imprisoned an ostrich chick in a jar and its mother went to the desert to get a tanir, whose blood she used to open the jar with its beak…

    AL writes 27 Jul 2016: ‘Have just read your post about marble. First of all, “would a liquid have survived”? In the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne, I have seen several Roman glass phials, jars and bottles, all sealed with their original contents in place. So the first answer is: yes a liquid could have survived. As for the effect on the stone, this sounds like some kind of acid, which would not affect glass. Marble is composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), and any mineral acid will decompose it into soluble salts and carbon dioxide (CO2). So maybe we are reading too much into the Latin, which merely states that the liquid in question was used to cut marble. On the face of it, this is quite probable.

    Weso writes 27 Jul 2016: I recall Dr Lyall Watson referenced something similar in Supernature. He related that an Amazonian river bird (plover, I think) used a particular type of clay paste to soften and hollow out a flat stone to create a nest. He suggested that this substance could have been used in the creation of monuments, temples, etc. by various Ameri-Indians. Read the book over 30 years ago so please forgive the lack of of detail (and/or accuracy!).

    Bruce writes 27 Jul 2016: The legend and the reference to Solomon makes me think this one is just some alchemical nonsense. I live in a mining and quarrying region.  Water has been used for ages when using metal saws and tools for cutting and processing stone normally in a continual flow.  It reduces wear on the tools and reduces friction, therefore it makes the stone easier to cut. It wouldn’t surprise me if some type of oil was used, too? It might give you a bit of a self-honing mechanism with a fine grained stone. The tale may be more of a reflection large scale Classical stone working techniques being rediscovered and used in the early decades of the Gothic building boom in Europe. You couldn’t just knock down a couple of old Roman buildings and reuse the stones when building those style of buildings. Why not attribute the new wonder architecture and it’s stone working techniques to a holy miracle oil?

    Ron writes 27 Jul 2016: I read with great interest your post on the “carving liquid” which was allegedly discovered in Rome in the 12th century. I have come across a similar story to this, but coming from Latin America and not Europe. Many years ago I came read the books of James Churchward (he of the lost continent of Mu fame) and other writers like him who collected tales from the backwaters of history and archaeology as these subjects were then understood. One anecdote has always stood out and I believe it was from a Churchward book. If my memory is correct, a Spanish conquistador was traveling through part of the Amazon (it could have been Peru for I read this so long ago) and he was told of the sap of a plant which grew high in the mountains which could make stone malleable as clay. This actually makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Plants located high on the sides of rocky cliffs would have to use some sort of solvent to allow roots to grab onto the steep and smooth surfaces. If such a plant existed in pre-colonial times in Latin America, it would neatly explain how so many cultures with no metal tools, like the Mayans and the Aztecs for example, could create such elaborate carved figures from stone. The tomb of Kulkulkan (sp?) at Palenque in Mexico comes to mind. Such a plant could have been so common that over-use by ancient peoples could have caused it to go extinct. Or if it did not become extinct, it could have been forgotten. In either case, botanists have not mentioned such a plant that I know of. I have not found anything like this story in over 45 years. Perhaps a reader of your blog could shed more light on this enigma.