Image: Cleopatra under study
Brian Biffin via Montclair State Univ.
Archaeologists Neil Oliver and Prudence Jones study a large relief of Cleopatra and Caesarion making offerings to the gods on the rear wall of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera. Jones was able to reproduce Cleopatra's legendary trick of dissolving a pearl in a cocktail.
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updated 8/3/2010 9:36:10 AM ET 2010-08-03T13:36:10

Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, might have indeed drunk a pearl cocktail in a gulp, an experimental study has concluded.

Legend has it that, in order to show her wealth and power, Cleopatra VII (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.) made a bet with her lover — the Roman leader Marc Antony — that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal.

"She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it," Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.) wrote in his Natural History.

Indeed, the pearl was not just any pearl. Pliny called it "the largest in the whole of history," a "remarkable and truly unique work of nature" worth 10 million sesterces.

Although the account was considered credible in antiquity, modern scholars have dismissed the story as fiction.

Giving ancient sources the benefit of the doubt, classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University in New Jersey experimented with vinegar and a five-carat pearl to find out whether the acetic acid concentration is sufficient to dissolve calcium carbonate.

"All you need is vinegar and a pearl. In my experiments, I used a white vinegar sold in supermarkets. Wine vinegar was most common in the Greco-Roman world, so it is likely that's what Cleopatra used," Jones told Discovery News.

Jones found that a 5 percent solution of acetic acid, a concentration identical to that of white vinegar sold in supermarkets today, takes 24 to 36 hours to dissolve a pearl weighing approximately one gram. The process leaves a small amount of translucent, gel-like material on the surface.

"The calcium carbonate in a pearl reacts with the acetic acid in vinegar to produce calcium acetate, water and carbon dioxide," Jones wrote in the current issue of the Classical World journal, detailing her research.

The cocktail would have been less appetizing than a martini with the traditional olive, but still palatable.

"The calcium carbonate in the pearl neutralizes some of the acid, so the resulting drink is not as acidic as vinegar," said Jones.

The experiment also dispelled one of the most common misconceptions regarding Cleopatra's cocktail: the idea that only a super-concentrated vinegar could destroy a pearl.

"A higher concentration of acetic acid actually slows the reaction," said Jones.

Other experiments have shown that when both the pearl is crushed and the vinegar is boiled, the reaction takes less than 10 minutes.

"In Pliny's account, the time frame is compressed, as a large pearl would take more than 24 hours to react completely. But the outcome — pearl destroyed, money spent and cocktail consumed — is plausible," Jones concluded.

Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science who specializes in investigating the basis of many ancient myths, folklore and popular beliefs, agrees.

"I think this research has convincingly demonstrated the technique that Cleopatra could have used to dissolve a pearl. We already know that this curious, intelligent queen carried out toxicological experiments," Mayor told Discovery News. "It's likely she softened the pearl in advance, then crushed it and placed it in a goblet to dazzle Marc Antony with her wealth and arcane scientific expertise."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Good times in ancient times

  • Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU

    Summertime fun isn't a modern invention: Ancient cultures liked to let the good times roll as well. Some celebrated with a few drinks. Others partied hard through the night. There were days at the spa, nights at the theater and time to play a little ball. The evidence for the good times in past eras comes from archaeologists who painstakingly dig through ancient remains. The fruits of their efforts help piece together tales showing how today's leisurely shenanigans are just the latest incarnation of cultural customs quite old.

    Take the ancient Egyptians, for example. Not only did they drink beer to excess, they had an annual "festival of drunkenness" dedicated to the cause. Participants got wasted, had gratuitous sex and woke the next day to blaring music, according to an Egyptologist excavating a temple in Luxor where the festivities occurred. The debauchery even had a point: re-enactment of a myth about an evil goddess who became a savior after being tricked into drinking mass quantities of beer. This drawing is based on a wall painting that depicts the festivities. Click the "Next" button above to learn about six more good times in ancient times.

    - John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Wari brewskis

    The Wari, an Andean culture that pre-dated the Incas, made and drank their beer in style. Archaeologists working on a mountaintop in Peru discovered a 1,000-year-old brewery that churned out 475-gallon batches of spicy beerlike chicha. Elegant shawl pins found on the brewery floor indicate that elite women staffed the facility. The brewery was burned to the ground in a final festival that ended with ritualistic smashing of beer mugs in the embers. One of the mugs pieced back together is pictured here.

  • Roman hot-tub party

    Andrew Medichini  /  AP

    For a wealthy, 2nd-century Roman said to be friends with the Emperor Hadrian, nothing, apparently, beat a good hot-tub party. His two-story villa, spread out over 5 acres, included a lavish bath complex with mosaic floors and marble latrines. Archaeologist Darius Arya, who is leading the dig, told The Associated Press that such baths were popular places for Romans to pass their days: "You could eat well, you could get a massage, you could have sex, you could gossip, you could play your games, you could talk about politics - you could spend your whole day here." In this image, archaeologists work on the ruins.

  • Wine-tasting in China

    PNAS

    Oenophiles may lack the vocabulary to describe it, but an archaeological chemist is confident residues he found on 9,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu are from the world's first fermented beverage. The winelike liquid was made with rice, honey and fruit of the hawthorn tree or wild grape. About 6,000 years later, the wine makers had become a bit more sophisticated: The rice and millet wines found in sealed bronze vessels from the Shang Dynasty, including the one pictured here, were flavored with herbs such as chrysanthemum and pine resins.

  • Greek theater

    Georgia Tech

    Theater as we know it today has its roots in ancient Greece, where tragedy and drama played to swelling crowds. These productions trace their roots to songs sung at festivals related to the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the madness it inspires. Pictured here is the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates to the 4th century B.C. Scientists recently discovered that the limestone seats serve as an acoustic filter, hushing background noises from the unruly crowd and reflecting the voices of the actors on stage.

  • Play ball, Maya-style

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
    Andrew L. Demerest

    The Maya, like many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, gathered to cheer at ball games long before the dawn of soccer. Known as "pitz" among the Maya, participants in the ancient ballgame used their hips, knees and elbows to send a rubber ball through stone hoops attached to the sides of the court. Pictured here is a 1,300-year-old stone altar recovered from looters who took it from the royal ball court at Cancuen. It depicts King Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte playing ball with another king. The game was often more ceremony than sport, used to seal alliances with neighboring kings.

  • Cana's miraculous wine?

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    According to the Bible, Jesus once turned water to wine. The miracle, said to be his first, happened at a Jewish wedding in the Galilee village of Cana where the celebratory drink had run dry. In 2004, archaeologists working in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one pictured here, that are thought to have contained wine. The site could well represent the biblical Cana. However, other researchers have found pieces of stone jars at a site several miles to the north that could also date back to the time of Jesus and is thus also a candidate for the biblical Cana.

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