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Ivory mortar and pestle, Europe, 1501-1700

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Mortars and pestles were used to grind plants, minerals and hard substances for drugs. The mortar is decorated to a high quality with cherubs using alchemical apparatus for distillation. The pestle, carved from a single piece of ivory, shows a snake coiled around the handle. The snake is symbolic of medicine and a snake wrapped around a staff is linked to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. This mortar and pestle allegedly belonged to Queen Victoria. She is believed to have presented it to the Chambers family who were in the royal household’s service from 1830 onwards. It may have been a purely decorative piece as it looks as if it has hardly been used.

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    Techniques and Technologies:


    Glossary: pharmacy

    The preparation and medicinal dispensing of drugs.

    Glossary: mortar

    Cup-shaped vessel in which drugs or herbal mixtures are pounded with a pestle.

    Glossary: pestle

    An elongated piece of hard material usually made of stone. A pestle is used for grinding pigments, herbs, spices or other materials in a mortar.

    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.