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A Golden Crown – How did Drogo melt gold?



Season 1, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones is all about the death of Viserys Targaryen. Viserys (Harry Lloyd) is gruesomely killed by Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and his Dothraki horsemen. The aspiring king has molten gold poured on his head; a similar method of killing to pouring molten gold down a person’s throat, which dates from as early as the Romans.

The episode, aptly titled ‘A Golden Crown’, was unsurprisingly brutal but sharp viewers questioned just how an ordinary wood fire could burn hot enough to melt gold. Below we break down how such a feat of chemistry might have been achieved…

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What is the melting point of gold?

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Pure gold melts at 1,064 degrees Celsius.

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How hot does a wood fire burn?
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Firewood burns at around 300 degrees Celsius, but with the gases released from the initial combustion this temperature will increase to around 600 degrees – several hundred degrees short of the required heat to melt pure gold.

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What if the gold is impure?
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Impurities can lower the melting point of gold. 14 carat gold, for example, melts around 829c, so 9 carat gold would melt at an even lower heat.

The Dothraki are fighters and looters; while the gold they stole might have been pure, there are no guarantees. They wouldn’t necessarily be educated enough to know what was real, what was fake, or what was an alloy - like 9ct or 18ct gold.

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How do we know it was really gold?
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We don’t, and other metals melt at much lower temperatures. Lead, for example, melts at 327.5 degrees Celsius, and given its density isn’t far off that of gold it’s not hard to believe that a rabble of horsemen wouldn’t feel the difference between gold-plated lead and pure gold.

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Are we sure it was purely a wood fire?
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Coal burns up to around 1,900 degrees Celsius, so a combined wood/coal fire could melt pure gold.

In the episode we see a stone cooking platform in the centre of the room. A frame sits above this and on the frame hangs a large iron cooking pot. In this pot the gold is melted, but the size of the central square firepit could suggest that a base layer of coal was sat beneath the firewood visible in the episode.

Wood and coal can be burned together, and the stacking would allow greater heat, as well as the freedom to add or remove logs as necessary and adjust the temperature. The only problem with this suggestion is how Khal Drogo – admittedly a psychotic warrior – could lift the pot handles without instantly burning himself.

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Why is Viserys not immune to fire?
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This is a myth, as George R.R. Martin has cleared up himself. Later in the series (spoilers!), sister Daenerys steps into a roaring fire with three dragon eggs, and walks out again half a day later alive, unburnt, with three hatched dragons. This gave rise to the myth that the true ‘Dragon’ and heir to the Targaryen throne would be immune, but actually this was mere fluke, or perhaps a miracle in the form of divine intervention.

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The fan community seems to believe that George R.R. Martin’s loose depiction in the book – of gold starting to lose form rather than melting – allows more leeway for explaining how a seemingly ordinary (albeit large) wood fire would reach the required temperatures to melt gold.

The book depiction also takes longer than the TV interpretation, and while the TV dramatisation inevitably made the gold runnier for the dramatic effect of it running all down Viserys’ face, I’m sure we can forgive a magical fantasy show with dragons and ice zombies for taking liberties with science…