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PyriteA Natural History of Fool's Gold$
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David Rickard

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780190203672

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190203672.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 28 October 2021

Pyrite and the Origins of Civilization

Pyrite and the Origins of Civilization

(p.27) 2 Pyrite and the Origins of Civilization

David Rickard

Oxford University Press

Pyrite is an often-overlooked material today although it has been instrumental in enabling many aspects of our modern culture and industry. This bright, brassy mineral is the most abundant metal sulfide in the Earth’s crust and provides a marked chemical contrast to the duller silicates and oxides that constitute most rocks. Most people today are familiar with the mineral, even though they do not know its details, because it stands out in the natural environment and because of the connection with fool’s gold. Pyrite has been a source of both metals and sulfur since ancient times, and both of these commodities have been key to our civilization. The mineral is easily decomposed by heat with the production of sulfur, sulfur oxide gases, and a metal-rich slag. It oxidizes readily in aerated water to form red and yellow ochers that may be used as pigments. It commonly occurs with other valuable metals that may be extracted by leaching or heating with various fluxes. In summary, it is an exceptional mineral whose benefits were readily available to primitive societies and have led to the development of our modern civilization. One of the extraordinary facets of our modern civilization is that we take lighting fires for granted. All you need is a cheap match. However, this is a relatively recent invention. So how did the early Victorians and their predecessors light their fires? Old films and television series, the so-called costume dramas, rarely, if ever, show people lighting fires. One reason for this was that lighting a fire could be a long process, so once it was lit, it was kept going. Even I remember that letting the fire go out was a heinous crime in the days before central heating, when our house was heated by a coal fire. The fire was kept going during the coldest winter weeks: it was banked up at night with coal, which kept it nicely smoldering while we slept. Its heat prevented the water pipes in the house from freezing during the iciest nights and subsequently bursting when they were warmed up again.

Keywords:   Daoism, Fomes fomentarius, Frasch process, Hermes, Homo erectus, PseudoGeber, Tudor dynasty, cadmia, civilization, fireworks, flintlock pistol, friction matches, weapons industry

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