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The name is derived from the Greek ὀρείχαλκος, oreikhalkos (from ὄρος, oros, mountain and χαλκός, chalkos, copper), meaning literally "mountain copper".
The Romans transliterated "orichalcum" as "aurichalcum," which was thought to literally mean "gold copper".
It is known from the writings of Cicero that the metal which they called orichalcum resembled gold in color but had a much lower value.
In Virgil's Aeneid, the breastplate of Turnus is described as "stiff with gold and white orichalc".
Orichalcum has been held to be either a gold-copper alloy, a copper-tin or copper-zinc brass, or a metal or metallic alloy no longer known.
In later years, "orichalcum" was used to describe the sulfide mineral chalcopyrite and also to describe brass.
However, these usages are difficult to reconcile with the claims of Plato's Critias, who states that the metal was "only a name" by his time, while brass and chalcopyrite were very important in the time of Plato, as they still are today.
Joseph Needham notes that 18th century Bishop Richard Watson, a professor of chemistry, wrote of an ancient idea that there were "two sorts of brass or orichalcum".
Needham also suggests that the Greeks may not have known how orichalcum was made, and that they might even have had an imitation of the original.
However, apart from these rather
rough and ready techniques for testing
precious metals the Greeks knew of three
quantitative methods for assaying gold
and silver and all three are still in use
today, two of them in the assay offices of
the world (fire assay and the touchstone)
and the third in various museum
laboratories for the nondestructive
analysis of gold coins (specific gravity
measurement by the Archimedes