Detail of a rattle, 1100-1470 AD, Chimu, north coast Peru, gold or gold-plated silver - Art Institute of Chicago.

Golden Years: Metal Coating Techniques Used 2000 Years Ago Outshine Modern Methods

(Read the article on one page)

Ancient technology used by craftsmen 2000 years ago to apply thin films of metal onto their statues surpassed modern standards for producing DVDs, solar cells, and electronic devices. It makes you wonder, how did they do it?

A report on the discovery in the July 2013 issue of Accounts of Chemical Research affirmed:

“[…] the high level of competence reached by the artists and craftsmen of these ancient periods who produced objects of an artistic quality that could not be bettered in ancient times and has not yet been reached in modern ones.”

Gold-Plated Silver Dish - Sasavid Period - Azerbaijan Museum - Tabriz - Iranian Azerbaijan – Iran.

Gold-Plated Silver Dish - Sasavid Period - Azerbaijan Museum - Tabriz - Iranian Azerbaijan – Iran. ( Adam Jones/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Traditional techniques of fire gilding and silvering are mercury-based processes that have been used to coat the surface of objects such as jewelry, statues, and amulets with thin layers of silver or gold. Often used for decorative purposes, it has also been used to fool purchasers into believing a less precious metal was composed of gold or silver.

11th century A Hoard of Gilded Objects.

11th century A Hoard of Gilded Objects. (Suraj Belbase /CC BY SA 4.0 )

2000 years ago, ancient gilders made metal coatings that were especially thin, adherent, and uniform – increasing durability and saving on more expensive materials. This level of quality had yet to be reached in the modern world.

Despite their apparent lack of knowledge of chemical-physical processes, ancient artisans could create amazing results while manipulating metal. One technique they put into practice was to use mercury like a glue and then apply thin films of precious metals to their desired objects.

How artisans centuries ago achieved sophisticated gilding, such as on the St. Ambrogio golden altar from 825 AD, is now coming to light.

How artisans centuries ago achieved sophisticated gilding, such as on the St. Ambrogio golden altar from 825 AD, is now coming to light. ( American Chemical Society )

The results of the study may aid in the preservation of past treasures, but they also demonstrate how ancient people likely had much more advanced knowledge and skills than many people give them credit for.

Another example of ancient advanced knowledge is the 2000-year-old Antikythera mechanism , a metallic device with a complex combination of gears which apparently worked to calculate solar and lunar eclipses as well as the positions of celestial bodies.

Antikythera mechanism fragment (fragment A)

Antikythera mechanism fragment (fragment A). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Baghdad Battery also usually falls into the category of ancient advanced knowledge. This is a clay pot that holds a copper cylinder with an iron rod at the center – it may be the earliest form of an electric battery.

Three pieces of the Baghdad Battery.

Three pieces of the Baghdad Battery. ( theironskeptic)

Although the level of sophistication 2000 or more years ago may be bewildering for some people today, that doesn’t mean such significant accomplishments should be ignored. Instead, our history books should applaud the ancients’ accomplishments and promote curiosity about how and where the ancient advanced knowledge came from.

Top Image: Detail of a r attle, 1100-1470 AD, Chimu, north coast Peru, gold or gold-plated silver - Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Public Domain

By April Holloway


Cousin_Jack's picture

The difference between then and now is that we now use machines and computers to do what was once done with hand and brain. We’re no more advanced now than we were then, we’ve just learnt something new and different. Or maybe our reliance on technology means we ourselves are learning less.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene.
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research

Ancient Technology

The School of Athens
Much of modern science was known in ancient times. Robots and computers were a reality long before the 1940´s. The early Bronze Age inhabitants of the Levant used computers in stone, the Greeks in the 2nd century BC invented an analogue computer known as the Antikythera mechanism. An ancient Hindu book gives detailed instructions for the construction of an aircraft –ages before the Wright brothers. Where did such knowledge come from?

Ancient Places

Smuts house
The farmstead of General Jan Smuts on the outskirts of Pretoria, is reputed to be one of the most haunted private homes in the country, according to Mr Mark Rose-Christie, raconteur and social scientist, who regularly takes brave visitors on a tour of haunted sites on his mystery ghost bus.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article