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A History of Gold
child finds a shiny rock in a creek, thousands of years ago, and the human race is introduced to gold for the first time.
Gold was first discovered as shining, yellow nuggets. "Gold is where you find it," so the saying goes, and gold was first discovered in its natural state, in streams all over the world. No doubt it was the first metal known to early hominids.
Gold became a part of every human culture. Its brilliance, natural beauty, and luster, and its great malleability and resistance to tarnish made it enjoyable to work and play with. Because gold is dispersed widely throughout the geologic world, its discovery occurred to many different groups in many different locales. And nearly everyone who found it was impressed with it, and so was the developing culture in which they lived.
Gold was the first metal widely known to our species.
When thinking about the historical progress of technology, we consider
the development of iron- and copper-working as the greatest
contributions to our species' economic and cultural progress - but gold
came first. Gold is the easiest of the metals. It occurs in a virtually
pure and workable state, whereas most other metals tend to be found in
ore-bodies that pose some difficulty in smelting. Gold's early uses
were no doubt ornamental, and its brilliance and permanence (it neither
corrodes nor tarnishes) linked it to deities and royalty in early
Gold has always been powerful stuff. The earliest history of human interaction with gold is long lost to us, but its association with the gods, with immortality, and with wealth itself are common to many cultures throughout the world. Early civilizations equated gold with gods and rulers, and gold was sought in their name and dedicated to their glorification. Humans almost intuitively place a high value on gold, equating it with power, beauty, and the cultural elite. And since gold is widely distributed all over the globe, we find this same thinking about gold throughout ancient and modern civilizations everywhere.
Gold, beauty, and power have always gone together. Gold in ancient times was made into shrines and idols ("the Golden Calf"), plates, cups, vases and vessels of all kinds, and of course, jewelry for personal adornment.
The "Gold of Troy" treasure hoard,
excavated in Turkey and dating to the era 2450 -2600 B.C., show the
range of gold-work from delicate jewelry to a gold gravy boat weighing
a full troy pound. This was a time when gold was highly valued, but had
not yet become money itself. Rather, it was owned by the powerful and
well-connected, or made into objects of worship, or used to decorate
Gold has always had value to humans, even before it was money. This is demonstrated by the extraordinary efforts made to obtain it. Prospecting for gold was a worldwide effort going back thousands of years, even before the first money in the form of gold coins appeared about 700 B.C. In the quest for gold by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Indians, Hittites, Chinese, and others, prisoners of war were sent to work the mines, as were slaves and criminals. And this happened during a time when gold had no value as 'money,' but was just considered a desirable commodity in and of itself.
The 'value' of gold was accepted over the world. Today, as in ancient times, the intrinsic appeal of gold itself has that universal appeal to humans. But how did gold come to be a commodity, a measurable a unit of value?
The first use of gold as money occurred around 700 B.C.,
when Lydian merchants produced the first coins. These were simply
stamped lumps of a 63% gold and 27% silver mixture known as 'electrum.'
This standardized unit of value no doubt helped Lydian traders in their
wide-ranging successes, for by the time of Croesus of Mermnadae, the
last King of Lydia (570 -546 B.C.), Lydia had amassed a huge hoard of
gold. Today, we still speak of the ultra-wealthy as being 'rich as
Gold, measured out, became money.
Gold's beauty, scarcity, unique density (no other metal outside the
platinum group is as heavy), and the ease by which it could be melted,
formed, and measured made it a natural trading medium. Gold gave rise
to the concept of money itself: portable, private, and permanent. Gold
(and silver) in standardized coins came to replace barter arrangements,
and made trade in the Classic period much easier.
Gold was money in ancient Greece.
The Greeks mined for gold throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East
regions by 550 B.C., and both Plato and Aristotle wrote about gold and
had theories about its origins. Gold was associated with water
(logical, since most of it was found in streams), and it was supposed
that gold was a particularly dense combination of water and sunlight.
Their science may have been primitive, but the Greeks learned much about the practicalities of gold mining. By the time of the death of Alexander of Macedon (323 B.C.), the Greeks had mined gold from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) all the way eastward to Asia Minor and Egypt, and we find traces of their placer mines today. Some of the mines were owned by the state, some were worked privately with a royalty paid to the state. Also, nomads such as the Scythians and Cimmerians worked placer mines all over the region. The surviving Greek gold coinage and Scythian jewelry both show superb artistry.
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