Jabir ibn Hayyan

Jabir ibn Hayyan (721–815)

The father of chemistry, Jabir was an eighth-century natural philosopher and experimental chemist who lived in Persia and Iraq.

He wrote many books in Arabic, providing the first systematic classification of chemical substances and documenting the oldest known instructions for making inorganic chemical compounds (such as ammonium chloride) from living things.

His Latinised name (Geber) may also be the origin of the word gibberish (incomprehensible technical jargon) as his work was written in highly esoteric code to ensure that only those who had been initiated into his alchemical school could understand it.

In Phosphate Rocks a carved wooden statue provides a clue that will help identify a body found in the ruins of an old factory.

John picks up a little ebony elephant, about the size of his fist, tail curved, trunk down, ears alert, expertly carved.

He strokes the smooth wood. One sharp white tusk is loose. John pulls it out, brings first the matchstick-sized shard, and then the empty socket, to his nose. He sniffs.



He pulls away and licks his lips, wrinkles his nose then bends forward and inhales again.


Yes, there it is. No doubt about it. Just a trace, a whiff, but unmistakable.


An adult human body contains over two hundred grams of sulphur, an essential part of the protein that makes up our muscles.

Formed deep in massive stars when helium and silicon reacted at temperatures of two and a half billion degrees centigrade before flying through space in dust, asteroids and planetesimals, to become the fifth most abundant element on earth.

Take a hair from your head. Poke it into the flame of a candle. Sniff the singed end. That smell comes from sulphur.

Phosphate Rocks: A Death in ten Objects by Fiona Erskine is published by Sandston Press at £8.99 and is available in all good bookshops and online here.