How Was Silver Smelted in Ancient Times?

Silver is a precious metal that has been used throughout history for currency, jewelry, and various other applications. However, have you ever wondered how ancient civilizations were able to smelt silver? In this article, we will explore the methods used by ancient people to extract silver from ore.

The Early Techniques

In ancient times, people initially discovered silver in its natural form as nuggets or pieces of pure silver on the surface of the earth. They could easily collect these pieces and use them for various purposes. However, as the demand for silver increased, people had to find ways of extracting it from ores.

The Cupellation Method

One of the earliest techniques used to extract silver was cupellation. This method involved heating the ore in a cupel – a small vessel made of bone ash – with lead.

The lead would absorb impurities like copper and other metals and rise to the surface as a liquid oxide. The remaining material in the cupel would be pure silver.

The Patio Process

Another method used in ancient times was known as the Patio process. This technique was common in Spanish America during colonial times and involved using mercury to extract silver from ore.

The process began by crushing the silver-bearing ore into small pieces and mixing it with salt, copper sulfate, and mercury. The mixture would then be spread out on a patio or large flat surface where it would be exposed to sunlight for several weeks. The mercury would absorb the silver content forming an amalgam which could later be heated to release pure silver.

The Modern Techniques

While these early techniques were effective at extracting small amounts of silver from ores, they were not efficient enough for large-scale production. As technology advanced over time, modern techniques emerged that allowed for more efficient extraction of silver.

The Cyanide Process

The Cyanide process is one such modern technique used to extract silver from ores. This process involves mixing crushed ore with a dilute solution of sodium cyanide.

The solution reacts with the silver in the ore, forming a soluble silver cyanide complex. The complex is then separated from the ore and treated with zinc, which precipitates the silver from the solution as a solid.

The Electrowinning Process

Another modern technique for extracting silver is electrowinning. This process involves passing an electric current through a solution containing dissolved silver ions and depositing pure silver onto a cathode. The process is highly efficient and allows for large-scale production of silver.


In conclusion, ancient people used various techniques to extract silver from ores, including cupellation and the Patio process. While these techniques were effective at small scale production, modern techniques such as the Cyanide and Electrowinning processes have made it possible to extract large quantities of silver efficiently. Silver remains a valuable commodity today, used in various industries ranging from electronics to jewelry making.