The history of Whitby Jet is long and fascinating. Given it’s illustrious history, it comes as no surprise therefore that jet has a rich association with folk-law and legend. The Greek philosophers begin debating materials which behave oddly in relation to combustion in the early C4th BC. By the C1st AD Pliny the Elder gives us the first scientific description of jet. Referring to it by its Latin name “gagate” Pliny tells us that there is a rich source of the material in the area of the River Gages in Lycia (modern Turkey).
Pliny goes on to say ‘It is black, smooth, light, and porous, differs but little from wood in appearance, is of a brittle nature. When burnt, it gives out a sulphurous smell; and it is a singular fact, that the application of water ignites it, while that of oil quenches it. The fumes of it, burnt, keep serpents at a distance.
The association of jet with serpents endures to this day and across all jet working cultures.
Jet has inspired some of history’s greatest minds to write poetry and prose. The following verse was written in C4th A.D. and attributed to Orpheus:
“…when Jet in rising clouds consumes,
The nose provoking with its pungent fumes.
Black as a coal, but yet of lustrous shine,
It blazes up like a torch of driest pine…“
Sarah is currently a post graduate archeological researcher at Durham University specialising in the history of Whitby Jet. Her research project is concerned with the identification of Whitby Jet within the archeological record and its cultural importance to the British Isles.