What Is Cupellation


One ancient process for extracting the silver from lead was cupellation. Lead was melted in a bone ash 'test' or 'cupel' and air blown across the surface. This oxidised the lead to litharge, leaving a button of silver. In ancient times, the litharge was discarded, but more usually it was re-smelted to lead. "Pigs" of Roman lead have been found marked EX ARG (argentum is Latin for Silver). This presumably indicated that the lead had already been de-silvered. This process was viable economically if the lead contained at least 8 troy ounces of silver per ton of lead (178 ppm).

In the 18th century, the process was carried on using a kind of reverberatory furnace, but differing from the usual kind in that air was blown over the surface of the molten lead from bellows or (in the 19th century) blowing cylinders.

Cupellation in The New World

The huge amount of Pre-Hispanic silver adornments known especially from Perú, Bolivia and Ecuador make us wonder whether the pre-Hispanic civilizations obtained the raw material from native ores or from argentiferous-lead ores. Although native silver may be available in America, it is as rare as in the Old World. From colonial texts it is known that silver mines were open in colonial times by the Spaniards from Mexico to Argentina, the main ones, being those of Tasco, Mexico and Potosí in Bolivia.

Some kind of blast furnaces called huayrachinas were described in colonial texts, as native technology furnaces used in Perú and Bolivia to smelt the ores that come from the silver mines owned by the Spaniards. Although it is not conclusive, it is believed that these kinds of furnaces may have been used before the Spanish Conquest. Ethnoarchaeological and archaeological works done at Porco – Potosí, Bolivia have suggested it.

There are no specific archaeological accounts about silver smelting or mining in the Andes prior to the Incas. However, silver and lead artefacts have been found in the Peruvian central highlands dated in the pre-Inca and Inca periods. From the presence of lead in silver artefacts, archaeologists suggest that the cupellation process might have occurred there.

Post time: Aug-05-2016


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