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Furnaces were used in the alchemists’ search for the elusive philosopher’s stone – which promised to turn any metal into gold – and the ‘elixir of life’, which promised immortality. Even though we may laugh at these quests, now associated with the likes of Harry Potter, many chemical processes were developed during the fruitless search, including distillation, solution and sublimation. Fire and heat was the chief agent in these processes and close attention was paid to the design and construction of furnaces. This one was designed to maintain an equal heat throughout. The coat of arms moulded on the side is that of the Villevault family from 1501-1700. It is thought that they commissioned this furnace. The furnace may be French or German in origin. A moulded sphinx, an ancient mythical beast with the head of a woman and the body of a lion, sits on top of the fire place.

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    Glossary: athanor

    A digesting furnace, formerly used by alchemists. It was constructed to maintain uniform and durable heat.

    Glossary: chemistry

    The branch of science that studies substances which constitute matter with the aim of discovering their properties, how they react, and the uses and products of such reactions.

    Glossary: alchemy

    A form of medieval chemistry that incorporated aspects of philosophy. It was concerned with transforming metal, particularly into gold, and potentially creating an elixir to prolong life.

    Glossary: distillation

    A technique to remove or separate components in a liquid mixture. It works because chemicals have different boiling points. Vapours produced by boiling are cooled and then collected when condensed.