If you speak to 'older people' about 'lye' or 'lye crystals' they are often
refering to 'soda', 'washing soda' or 'soda ash'. This is normally sodium
carbonate sold as a cleaning product in a crystaline form. 'Lye' is
commonly seen as an American term for the English 'Soda'. If you disolve it
in water you get an alkaline solution which, as has been sugested, will
disolve fat and thus acts as a very good degreaser and cleaner. This
includes your hands and any other flesh it gets onto! The chemical reaction
going on is saponification - the conversion of oils and fats into sodium
stearate (hard soap) and/or potassium stearate (soft soap) if there is
potasium carbonate in the mix. A weak alkali solution on your skin has a
characteristic 'soapy' feel as it works on your skin oils. Obviously the
effect depends upon how strong you make the solution, and if you make it
strong enough you will get chemical burns.
A more serious version of Lye is in fact potasium hydroxide or sodium
hydroxide (or a mix thereof). This is commonly called 'caustic soda'. This
is a much stronger alkali and it will strip the meat off your bones - which
is why it tells you to wear gloves and be careful. It should be handy for
disposing of unwanted bodies though (don't you find that there is never
enough space under the patio?) though the resultant sludge/bones left over
will still need to be got rid of.
As has been suggested though, archaeologically a lye pit has two main
A pit in which plant ashes are steeped in water to wash out the
potasium/sodium carbonates and hydroxides thus producing an alkali solution.
Fern or kelp ash was particularly favoured for this. The resultant liquor
can be cleaned up and used in soap manufacture, but it was commonly used in
the cloth bleaching and dyeing industries, as a mordant to 'set' colurs,
partly as a bleaching agent to whiten cloth, but also to remove the natural
oils and fats from the cloth (e.g. lanolin) prior to dyeing to help the dye
penetrate the fibres. Lye can also be called 'Bowk', 'Buck' or 'Ley' in the
textile industry. In the 19th century 'artificial' chemical bleaching
agents/alkalis - often based on 'soda' from the Leblanc process - generally
replaced lyes as they were more concentrated and consistent.
A pit in which lye is used to clean hides/bones/etc. generally as part of
the tanning process to remove excess fat, flesh, hair, etc. from the raw
hide. The sludge from these pits was actually a crude form of soap and if
you were desparate enough could be used.
Well, you did ask ...
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