Field of Science

Gotta Catch 'Em All - A history of collecting rocks and minerals

 – Part I.: Minerals as Medicine

The discovery of fossils in graves and at archaeological digs suggest that humans already in prehistoric times collected unusual shaped rocks or minerals. The why of such a behavior is unknown, maybe the rocks were seen as talisman or simply appreciated for their beauty.

The first written descriptions or minerals and rocks and why collect them date back to Ancient Egypt. Minerals were used for cosmetic purpose but also for medical use and therefore collected in the field. To pass the knowledge from one scholar to the next also the first catalogs of minerals were compiled. 

In Egypt metal-sulfide minerals like galena, pyrolusite, magnetite and stibnite were pulverized and used to create "kohl" or “kajal”, a black color used as makeup for the eyes. The black maybe also sheltered the eye from the blinding desert sun. Green makeup was made from minerals like malachite and chrysocolla. Malachite was also a popular ingredient for medicine, believed to cure - as some preserved medical scrolls describe - diseases of the abdomen and dental problems. The name malachite was given by the Greek to this mineral, as its color resembles the color of the malva-fruit or „malache“. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder describes in his „Naturalis historia“ the powder „molochotis“ used to clean wounds. As malachite contains copper and copper acts as disinfectant the described curative property maybe is based on real observations.
Fig.1. Even today minerals play an important role in alternative medicine. Some minerals derive also the name from supposed similarities to human organs or curative powers, so is hematite known also as blood stone, after its red streak. Hematite rose from Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Also, or maybe especially, Assyrian and Babylonian texts contain description of the magic-medical powers of minerals. At the times it was believed that diseases were caused by ghosts and spirits. Minerals, like lapis-lazuli, hematite and native copper were used as talismans to fend off the evil influences, along many other minerals which old names are nowadays forgotten. More rarely minerals were pulverized and used in lotions to be applied on the body.
According to Indian sources dating to the thirteenth century, but based on far older believes, diamonds were used as pulverized medicine against impotence and to increase longevity, aquamarine cured fever and topaz was used against skin diseases. Some of the supposed powers of minerals still play in the modern Ayurveda medicine a role.
Fig.2. The beauty of diversity - blue aquamarine, black tourmaline, white feldspar and colorless quartz, Pakistan.

According to traditional Chinese medicine diseases were caused by an imbalance of energy in the body. Geologic materials could help to restore the balance by controlling the flow of the supposed life-force. Mud and clay was used to cure skin diseases (there is some truth in this, as peat or fango baths are still popular), as were used minerals, rocks, metals and salts. Most famous is the use of “dragon bones” in Chinese remedies - pulverized bones of real, even if extinct animals - many fossil species were described from such material recovered in traditional apothecaries.
Islamic medical texts show a great influence of Greek medicine. Fossils and precious gemstones were used for tonics to cure or strengthen the inner organs. The Islamic scholars will preserve the knowledge after the demise of the Roman empire and medieval physician will later adopt many of the cures as described in islamic texts. 

During the middle ages many books dedicated to rocks and minerals will be written and many names used for the minerals could be recognized also by a modern mineralogist. However still minerals are classified by their supposed curative and magic properties and still for a long time there are no real mineral-collections created for the purpose to study the crystals. This will dramatically change in the late middle ages with the creation of the first Wunderkammern – the chambers of wonders.

To be continued...
DUFFIN, C.J. (2013): Lithotherapeutical research sources from antiquity to the mid-eighteenth century. In: Duffin, C. J., Moody, R. T. J. & Gardner-Thorpe, C. (eds): A History of Geology and Medicine. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 375: 7–43

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