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Science Historians Revive Ancient Recipes

By recreating experiments that are hundreds of years old, researchers hope to understand the past by experiencing it firsthand

by Sarah Everts
August 3, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 31

Deep in the national library of France sits a 400-year-old recipe book, its pages jam-packed with handwritten instructions for producing ancient pigments, varnishes, colored metals, and fake gems; for casting coins, cannons, and jewelry; and for doing creative—if disturbing—taxidermy that merges cats with bats. The manuscript is a rarity: Although printed recipe books were relatively common in the 16thcentury, this text was the equivalent of a lab notebook for an ambitious, anonymous French craftsman, someone who didn’t just collect useful recipes but actively tinkered with them, obsessively noting observations and protocol improvements in the margins.

“The text is so unruly that you can’t really read the manuscript—you have to decipher it,” says Pamela H. Smith, a historian of science at Columbia University. Smith launched a project last September to transcribe, translate, and re-create recipes from a digitized version of this chaotic manual, whose banal name, “Ms. Fr. 640,” belies its enticing contents. Funded by the National Science Foundation and dubbed the Making & Knowing Project, this venture has Columbia students systematically re-creating the book’s recipes as part of their coursework. Over the next few years, the plan is to compile the results of these modern re-creations in an online portal.

Credit: Making & Knowing Project
“Life-casting” was a popular product of 16th artisans. Insects, flowers, amphibians and other live objects were casted in metal.
Credit: Making & Knowing Project
Credit: Making & Knowing Project
In the 16th century, encasing living objects—such as flowers (top) and insects (bottom)—in metal was a popular endeavor.
In the 16th century, many artisans did “life-casting” of flowers and insects.
Credit: Making & Knowing Project
In the 16th century, encasing living objects—such as flowers (top) and insects (bottom)—in metal was a popular endeavor.

The Making & Knowing Project is part of a new trend among science historians to focus more on the practical side of the past and less on abstract interpretations of it. Reading and interpreting texts is the bread and butter of historical research. “But it’s often hard to know what authors meant if you don’t actually try to do what they did,” Smith says. By re-creating ancient experiments in modern labs, historians can access a deeper understanding of the mind-set and experience of early scientists, alchemists, and craftspeople. Re-creating recipes is about “getting under the skin of whoever did the experiment to understand some of their tacit knowledge,” says Erma Hermens, who has helped launch one of the world’s few master’s programs in technical art history—the study and re-creation of artists’ recipes and practices—at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland.

Although science historians have been reenacting old experiments here and there since the origin of the field in the 1910s, a majority of the re-creations have been one-of-a-kind, isolated projects, and many have been focused on physics and astronomy, rather than on understanding the laboratory practices of early molecular or materials scientists. “In the past two or three years, there’s been a sudden, new interest in experimental reconstruction of ancient recipes and experiments,” says Johns Hopkins University’s Lawrence Principe, who began re-creating alchemical experiments in the 1980s, when doing so was frowned upon. “I got a lot of criticism,” Principe says of his early efforts. “People said that I was just a scientist playing around, not doing real historical work.”

Fast-forward to today, and Principe’s work, along with that of William R. Newman at Indiana University, has overturned centuries-old misconceptions that alchemists were simply esoteric pseudoscientists. The science historians have shown that allegorical writings of alchemists were actually concrete instructions for making useful products such as pigments and that alchemical manuscripts form the foundation of modern chemistry.

Re-creating ancient recipes has also helped those working to keep precious masterpieces from degrading. For example, replicating recipes for pigments, oils, and varnishes by cultural heritage researchers has helped clarify why some artwork is cracking, fading, or otherwise falling prey to the insults of time. These studies have also allowed researchers to develop and test interventions for preventing or mitigating artwork degradation before conservators apply them to million-dollar masterpieces.

On occasion, reviving an ancient recipe has also helped improve human health. For example, inspiration for the malaria drug artemisinin was plucked from a 4th-century A.D. Chinese text. The text had suggested that extracts of sweet wormwood, a common Chinese plant, could be active against fevers. In the 1960s and ’70s, a team of Chinese scientists followed the text’s instructions and found that the extracts could cure malaria in people (see page 37). Finally, the team isolated the active ingredient and built analogs and thus was born the drug artemisinin, which is still used on patients today.

No matter what historical experiment scholars are trying to re-create—whether a medicinal recipe from 4th-century China or a protocol for making artificial gems in 16th-century Europe—the historians face common challenges.

One of the biggest misconceptions about re-creating ancient recipes in modern laboratories is that doing so is easy. “Wrong,” says Joel A. Klein, one of the postdocs at Columbia who is involved in the Making & Knowing Project. “There are pitfalls at every corner.”

For example, it can take months for modern scientists to successfully repeat modern experiments recorded by their contemporaries. That’s because so much is left unsaid, Principe says, even when a genuinely well-meaning scientist tries to keep a detailed account of an experimental protocol. Add to that challenge hundreds of years of evolving terminology and evolving names for starting materials, he says.

Artificial coral made from pine resin according to a 16th century artisanal recipe book.
Credit: Making & Knowing Project
This is the result of researchers’ attempts to re-create a 16th-century recipe for making fake coral. The method relies on pine resin and “dragon’s blood”—that is, mercury sulfide—to coat sticks and other objects.

And in the case of alchemists, there’s the additional challenge posed by their intentional desire to make it difficult to reproduce their work as a means to protect their intellectual property. Alchemical recipes often contain “disguised ingredients and deliberate misinformation,” says Jennifer Rampling, a historian of alchemy at Prince­ton University. Those wishing to re-create the work of alchemists must learn that “igniting the black dragon” likely means igniting finely powdered lead, she says, or that “dragon’s blood” is mercury sulfide.

Even when a literal interpretation of a recipe is possible, sourcing the ingredients can be a challenge. In some cases, “the ingredients are just plain weird,” Columbia’s Klein says. Case in point: his search for slippery elm root. Students in the Making & Knowing Project needed the obscure root to make a binder for sand-casting metal objects. When cooked in wine, the root produces sticky, mucuslike proteins that hold sand molds together as hot metal is poured in to form jewelry or coins. After Klein’s team tried to find the root at health food stores and online retailers, “someone at a botanical garden finally hooked us up with a giant bag of the stuff,” he adds.

Ancient recipes can also call for seemingly simple ingredients, such as wine, vinegar, onions, or eggs—but sourcing these ingredients leads to other kinds of pitfalls. Researchers typically opt for organic products to avoid contaminating their experiments with modern pesticides or herbicides. But just how “authentic” must the ingredients be? To make mid-16th-century egg tempera, a common paint binder, “do we need to breed chickens with a diet consistent with 1552?” asks Leslie Carlyle, who re-creates artists’ materials at the New University of Lisbon to help understand their degradation. “You can see how this could quickly spin out of control.”

Re-creating ancient recipes can also be a risky proposition. Because of safety concerns, Haileigh Robertson, who studies 17th-century gunpowder experiments at the University of York, in England, won’t even try to reproduce one of famous chemist Robert Boyle’s experiments. To test whether air was needed for combustion, “Boyle rigged up a pistol in a vacuum chamber to see if the gunpowder would ignite when the pistol fired,” she says.

Indeed, scholars doing reconstructions often struggle with balancing the realities of lab safety with historical accuracy. For example, “we can’t build a big charcoal fire in the lab,” Klein says, because it doesn’t exactly mesh with federal lab safety guidelines. Instead, researchers re-creating ancient recipes use anachronistic tools: They melt substances with propane torches and use electronic crucibles and kilns instead of the real McCoy. For those who value historical authenticity, using modern equipment “can be a bit disappointing,” Klein says, but it gets the job done.

Casting metal objects in sand. Students in the Making & Knowing Project produce the sand casts (including binders to keep the molten metal in the mould) according to a 16th century artisanal recipe book.
Credit: Making & Knowing Project
Sand-casting metal objects requires dry sand, otherwise the molten metal will vaporize residue water into steam that creates a safety hazard.

Even with the unwelcome luxury of 21st-century workspaces, experiments still go awry. For example, Klein recalls the time “we had molten silver rapidly discharging from a sand mold.” Trying to cast a small piece of jewelry, the Making & Knowing team hadn’t paid careful enough attention to the handwritten instructions in “Ms. Fr. 640” that said it was important to ensure that the sand mold had thoroughly dried. That’s because as molten metal slides into a damp sand mold, any traces of leftover water turn into steam; the pressure created causes molten silver to splash back, Klein explains. This cautionary information was in the text, “we just hadn’t paid attention,” he adds.

Those who re-create recipes often remark that following in the footsteps of ancient experimenters can be a humbling experience. “They were working with a deficit of principles, but the methods were extremely sophisticated. You quickly realize that what they were doing is incredibly clever,” York’s Robertson says.

“We need to combat the notion that ancient and premodern people were stupid,” Klein says. “They were a lot more advanced than we give them credit for.”


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