The Shining History of Gold: From Ancient Treasure to Modern Tech
Gold is arguably the human race’s most valued commodity and a lot could be written about the history of this metal. The luster, beauty, resistance to tarnishing, malleability, and overall brilliance have made gold a favorite among all human cultures that have encountered it. There are few metals that have had such an influence on human history as gold. We have given gold power and linked it to wealth, social status, beauty, glory, the divine, and immortality.
Since the human race’s earliest days we can see evidence of people having a fondness for gold’s natural shiny, yellow nuggets. Early humans, and perhaps even their hominid ancestors, would have found gold nuggets in streams dispersed across the globe. We can’t say for certain when people first took an interest in gold, but gold flakes have been found in Paleolithic caves dating back as far as 40,000 BC.
Early humans, and perhaps even our hominid ancestors, would have found gold nuggets in streams dispersed across the globe. (lesterman /Adobe Stock)
The Historic Quest for Gold
By 3000 BC, the ancient Egyptians were enamored with gold. They included it in their mythology and pharaohs and temple priests demanded it. They mined the metal and also created maps showing their ancient gold mines and where they had found gold deposits around the kingdom. One papyrus map in the Turin Museum even shows gold mines, miners’ quarters, and roads leading to mines and gold-bearing mountains.
The ancient Egyptians included gold in their mythology and pharaohs and temple priests demanded it. (Boggy /Adobe Stock)
Prospecting for gold took considerable effort, which is why Phoenicians, Egyptians, Indians, Hittites, Chinese, and other cultures used prisoners of war, slaves, and criminals to work in the mines. Note that this happened during a time when gold was without monetary value - it was just considered a desirable commodity in and of itself.
Ancient Egyptians are also credited as the first to mandate gold’s higher status over silver – the 3100 BC code of Menes, the founder of the first Egyptian dynasty, specifically stated that one piece of gold was worth two and a half pieces of silver. However, they preferred to use agricultural products when bartering. The first known civilization to use gold as currency is the Kingdom of Lydia, which was located in the western part of what is now Turkey. Prior to that, gold was also used in the same region for jewelry, in the creation of ritual relics, to enhance the appearance of sacred sites, and as a way for the elite to demonstrate their status in personal objects.
The first use of gold as money occurred around 700 BC, 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 BC), Lydia had amassed a huge hoard of gold. Today, some people still speak of the ultra-wealthy as being ‘rich as Croesus.’ Gold was a great choice for money, being portable, private, and permanent.
A number of "staters" (a standard measure) from the sixth century BC from a hoard found in Clazomenae. The central "lion and bull" one is thought to come from Lydia. (Dosseman/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mining for Dense, Watery Sunlight
Jewelry and decoration have long been a favored usage of gold, but since nuggets themselves are not the most alluring form of ornamental gold, humans had to find a way to shape it. Luckily for us, gold is the easiest metal to work. One of the reasons gold working predates iron and copper manufacturing is because it is naturally found in a mostly pure and workable state, it’s not necessary to extract gold from ore-bodies to smelt it – although high demand for gold over the ages has also required its extraction from stone.
Following the Greeks, the Roman Empire expanded gold mining. They diverted streams of water to mine hydraulically, built sluices and the first ‘long toms’ (a trough placed in moving water and fitted with a perforated sheet which would be filled with dirt or sand, filtering out the gold with the fast moving water). Romans mined underground, included water wheels in mining, and ‘roasted’ ores with gold in them to separate the precious metal from the rock.
Landscape of Las Médulas, Spain, the result of hydraulic mining by the ancient Romans. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Gold’s Significance and Symbolism Rises
The ancient Greeks had an interesting notion of how gold came to exist. They thought it was a dense combination of water and sunlight. They were mining for gold throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East regions by 550 BC and used it for money, status symbols, and personal adornment. By the Classical Period, people had gold shrines, idols, plates, cups, vases, and vessels, and all sorts of beautiful and intricate jewelry.
By this time in history, gold had both an association with the glory of immortal gods and demigods and also an obvious sign of wealth for humans. Later on across the globe, Aztec, Muisca, and Inca people also used gold in their religious ceremonies and at their sacred sites. All around the world the pattern was seen with emperors, priests, and elites – those who held gold also tended to hold power.
Moche octopus frontlet. (Carlos Santa Maria /Adobe Stock)
Modern Ways We Use the Precious Metal
More than just decorative, gold has functional uses as well. It has, for example, found its way into medicine. These days there are two classes of gold drugs, one injectable and the other taken orally, that are used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Gold nanoparticles have also been included in some experimental cancer treatments.
Gold is also a popular material in nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale, which is useful for biomedicine and optical electronic usages. Gold nanoparticles have shown themselves to be effective catalysts – materials that increase the rate of a chemical reaction, thus reducing the amount of energy needed to create a chemical change. In the 1980s, a Japanese scientist used this aspect of gold nanoparticles to oxidize carbon monoxide, which is toxic, into carbon dioxide and apply this to vehicle exhaust systems.
The future of gold is certainly bright. Not only for adorning our homes and bodies, but also creating new ways to live better, healthier, more technologically advanced lives!
Top Image: The history of gold is colorful and dramatic. Source: hnphotography / Adobe Stock
By Alicia McDermott
Trace the full, colorful, and dramatic story of gold through the ages in the March 2020 issue of Ancient Origins magazine. Get it HERE.