BY JOHN HILLER
As the earth cooled into a planet, the high specific gravity of gold placed it in the earth’s mantle. Specific gravity is the mass of gold compared to the mass of the same volume of water, or 19.3 times heavier than water. The mantle is the inner layer of molten rock, below the continents and ocean floors. The continents have been moving around over the earth’s mantle for geological ages. At the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago, the molten material began to boil and churn in circular currents. As the continents were moved about by the tectonic forces generated by the movement of the molten mantle, there were places where this molten material was pushed up to the surface. With it came the heavy metals, including gold, which was deposited very often in veins in faulted rock or as replacements of other minerals. The minerals that are usually associated with gold are quartz and the heavy metals. Over the course of geologic time, these veins of gold-bearing rock were exposed to weathering and the gold was eroded and transported by moving water.
Gold exists more or less evenly dispersed, with exceptions, in the crystallized rocks of the continents and major islands. Some of the notable exceptions of interest to students of the ancient world are abundant deposits in present day Hungary, Germany, the Ural Mountains of Russia, northern Spain, northern India, Ceylon, Senegal, the area around the Second Cataract of the Nile, the western coast of Africa and the shores of the Arabian Sea. Important places without native gold include the Tigris/Euphrates Valley, Cyprus and Mesopotamia.
Gold does not form chemical compounds easily, and therefore it is usually found almost pure in nature. The other heavy metals quickly decompose into compounds that are then dissolved away as they are exposed to weathering. The most common impurities in native gold are trace amounts of silver, copper, zinc, and lead. Native gold is gold as it is found, before any refining. Gold is often found as a by-product of the mining of these other heavy metals.
The earth is being constantly worn down by weathering forces such as rain, wind, freezing, thawing and plant roots. For millions of years these agents of change have been mining gold and depositing it into alluvial deposits. An alluvial gold deposit is a concentration of gold that is put in place by the natural action of the flow of water, where the heavy gold settles out of the moving water, while lighter material like quartz is washed farther downstream. Because gold does not decompose like silver when exposed to the elements, alluvial gold deposits have accumulated for millions of years.
Cro-Magnon burial sites in southern Europe show that the first gold miners were probably these earliest Homo Sapiens. Gold nuggets were used as adornment and possibly had mythical significance. The gold from millions of years of alluvial deposition was waiting to be found. These early people could pick up a nugget, appreciate its beauty, with the color of the sun, and feel its weight. Would you throw it back in the water? The sun was one of the mystical entities of these cultures, worshiped for its gifts of warmth and life. A golden nugget could offer the finder the color and warmth of the sun, and, by association, its powers.
Gold is found as dust, flakes, nuggets, crystals and often branching crystal formations that resemble the structure of ferns. Ancient peoples that found these fern-like crystals of gold held to a universal belief that gold grew as a plant in the rock. These early miners believed that gold deposits should be left with some gold still there to act as the seed that would allow the gold to replenish itself. This belief was held as late as the sixteenth century.
Known deposits of gold were widespread in antiquity. Ancient Egyptian production was so extensive that it approached a monopoly for several thousand years. Up to the first millennium B.C. virtually all gold production was under the control of the Pharaoh. During the early third millennium B.C., Egyptian merchants were exploring the east coast of Africa and the Arabian coasts. The now lost city of Punt was a trading center that offered gold and rare spices to the Egyptians. It is believed to be in what is now Somalia. The Egyptians established a gold mining colony in Mashonaland, inland from the mouth of the Zambezi River. Five treasure ships left Punt for Kosseir to bring the gold, myrrh and other treasures to Queen Hatshepsut. After 2000 B.C., the Twelfth Dynasty rulers pushed the frontiers south into Nibia and beyond the Second Cataract of the Nile. The vast gold deposits around the area were agressively explored and exploited. The gold fields in the mountains between the Nile and the Red Sea, near the area of the First Cataract on the Nile were also exploited by the Egyptians. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculs wrote an extensive manuscript describing these mines which have survived to modern times.
The beginning of civilization developed with the beginning of agricultural settlements, which created a reliable food supply. Trade soon developed between settlements, but food could not be transported over long distances without loss to spoilage. Gold could be transported and soon became an acceptable medium of exchange. It had been a demand-commodity for centuries and was always in short supply. Small quantities of gold could be traded for supplies and for trade goods at the end of the trade route; yet, it did not require extra beasts of burden to transport a lot of wealth in gold.
What was the source of the gold used in the earliest barter systems? History tells us that gold was the first recycled commodity in civilization. Gold from West Africa, Asia and Europe found its way to Egypt and was buried with the Pharaohs. Gold from looted tombs was quickly melted down and mixed with other gold. By the fifth century B. C., the gold that was in the treasuries of the political powers was a melting pot of gold from all over the known world. A good example of this was the third millennium city of Ur, in Mesopotamia. The Ur culture stretched along the lower Euphrates Valley, about 2600 B.C., and consisted of many small city-states. The Tigris and Euphrates Valley had no native gold, yet a surprising amount of archaeological gold has been found there. It is believed that all this gold came from trade with other cultures such as the Samarians, Egyptians and peoples of central Asia. There was a lot of gold available from the Ural-Altai region of central Asia where alluvial gold had been worked since prehistoric times. Gold came by caravan from Arabia, west of present day Bahrein, from upper Yemen and from near Aden. Another source known to the ancient cultures was in the region of Midia, below the Gulf of ‘Aquaba. From Macedonia, gold came from the mines on the flanks of Mount Bermius.
Another city-state was Alaca-Huyuk in central Turkey that supported a culture which buried gold with its kings. In 1935 a tell, or mound, was opened. It was a 2500 B.C. undisturbed royal necropolis. The tombs produced a fabulous treasure of finely worked gold from this Bronze Age culture. The city was at the center of three trade routes: to Mesopotamia, to the Black Sea, and to the Aegean Sea. Gold from all over the civilized world passed through this crossroads city-state, where the gold was mixed and smelted into the common melting pot of recycled gold.
At Pylos, in Mycenae, gold was a rare commodity reserved for the ruling class. It was used to settle taxes and as a donation to the temples. It was also used to buy off potential raiders. Yet, within the kingdom, only tiny amounts of native gold were known to be produced. Gold in these cultures was a trade commodity, where even gold-poor kingdoms acquired enough gold through trade to support its use as a medium of exchange for the ruling classes.
The use of standardized metal weights under government control was first introduced into Western Civilization at Sardis, capitol of the Lydian Empire, in what is now Turkey. By 700 B.C. Sardis was the center of trade in the area with trade routes stretching to Persia, Egypt, Greece, Assyria, and beyond. The Lydian culture stretched from the River Hylas to the Aegean Sea. Archaeological evidence shows that the first true coins in Western civilization were issued in Sardis about 640 B.C. by King Ardys. Small round ingots of electrum, found in alluvial deposits in the streams of nearby mountains, were minted with an incised square for the reverse and his totem animal, the fore part of a lion, for the obverse. This is confirmed in the writings of a fifth century B.C. Greek historian who credited the Lydians with striking the first electrum and gold coins.
Electrum coins were outlawed by King Croesus (560-546 B.C.) and gold or silver coins were issued. Pure metal coins were necessary to encourage trade relations with Greece, where electrum was not found native in the alluvial deposits. The Greeks would not accept electrum coins in trade. The early source of the gold for coinage was gold mined from the alluvial deposits in Lydia and Greece. Thasos was a rich land south of Thrace that had prolific gold mines and a controlling interest in mainland silver mines during the sixth century B.C. In Greece, the right to issue coins was reserved for political authorities and heads of state.
In 546 B.C. the Persians overran Lydia and adopted the use of coinage without changing the Lydian style or technology. However, they did bring a wealth of gold taken from Egypt. At their peak, they looted 40,000 pounds of gold a year from Egypt. This was mostly Ethiopian gold now melted into the Asian melting pot. The Persians also had their own gold supply. The Arabian shore of the Red Sea offered alluvial deposits so rich that the Greek historian Diodurus wrote that the alluvial mud positively glittered. Gold mines used to provide new gold to early mints were in operation at Phoenicia, Syria, Phrygia and Lampsacus. The river Oxus, known today as Amu Darya, which emptied into the Caspian Sea, was legendary to the Greeks for its alluvial gold. Meanwhile, Lampsacus, at the Dardanelles, issued electrum coinage in the fifth century B.C. and changed to gold in the fourth century B.C. to encourage trade with the Greeks.
A primary Greek deposit of alluvial gold was the river Pactolus which drained the Anatolian Highlands. Today the exact location of the river is uncertain and the gold strata are no longer being eroded. It was the gold from these sources that King Croesus used to issue the first true coinage backed by his crown. Because Greece as a whole had inadequate gold resources to support an extensive gold coinage, silver, for the first time, became the medium of exchange and the gold to silver ratio was set at 1:13. A noted exception to the silver coinage was the issue by Athens of gold coins from 407 to 404 B.C. to pay for the Peloponnesian War.
Philip I of Macedonia issued a prolific gold coinage after the conquest of northern Greece in 348 B.C. Philip II provided the Greeks with their first practical gold coinage from the gold mines at Thrace, Macedonia. So much gold became available that the ratio of gold to silver changed to 1:10. . Inflation had been introduced into civilization. Modern hindsight might well call this the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (after Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence). Alexander the Great increased the gold coin supply from bullion taken from the Persian treasuries. Gold was again being recycled and not all coinage was produced from gold mined for coinage.
The growth of Rome began at a time when the world supply of gold was mounting to a very great volume and was widely disseminated. Like Greece, the Romans began their rise to power with very little gold in their natural resources.
The first Roman gold came from the river Po in the western Alps and from southern Piedmont. Rome was slow to acquire vast amounts of gold and even forbade burial of gold with the deceased after 450 B.C. The Second Punic War gave Rome the prize that changed its gold position. The acquisition of Spain brought stupendous amounts of gold to Rome. Gold came from the mines and alluvial deposits in the Aduar Basin, the Malaga district, the Plains of Granada and the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gold is still found in these places today. Rome also got, from the treasuries of Syracuse, 2700 pounds of gold.
Roman conquest brought gold to the Imperial treasury from the far reaches of the Empire. Gold was recycled to produce many of the gold coins issued during the time of the Roman Empire. Roman Imperial gold coins circulated far beyond the frontiers on a vast scale, making it the first world coinage. The coins most circulated were those of Augustus. The gold for these coins was mined, and the coins minted, on a large scale, at Lugdunum in Gaul and at Calagurris in northern Spain. There has been prolific gold mining at these sites since antiquity. Caesar provided another source of gold with the conquest of Britain. The geographer Strabo wrote that gold was one of the commodities exported to Rome after Caesar’s triumph in Britain. The Romans extracted gold from mines at Wales, Devon and Cornwall.
The price of mining gold took a leap when the Romans developed hydraulic mining in the Spanish mines. Rivers were re-channeled and destroyed. Strabo wrote that this method produced more gold than the deep mines. Some of the Roman mines in Spain were 650 feet deep. Slaves in the mines never saw the light of day. The mines were worked until they collapsed on their inhabitants.
Roman Egypt issued the first coinage in that ancient land. The first systematic mining and use of gold occurred in the Nile Valley, yet the Pharaohs did not issue a coinage apart from a very few and minor issues. After the death of Alexander the Great the Ptolemies became the ruling class in the land of the Pharaohs. They promptly issued a prolific coinage of heavy gold coins.
As the influence of Rome expanded to include most of the known world, their sources of gold and their hunger for it expanded as well. Gold was taken from the Rhine River, from mines at Vercellae and from Transylvania. It was brought in trade from the Atlantic coast of central Africa, and from the sources of the Egyptians. Gold from all over the world flowed into Rome. The wealth of gold reached a point where massive statues of pure gold were displayed. The wife of Emperor Claudius, Agrippina, in A.D. 49, wore a tunic of plaited gold thread. She poisoned her husband five years later so that her son, Nero, could become emperor. Then Nero had her murdered five years later.
All this Roman gold was scattered over Europe and Asia when the barbarian invaders sacked Rome. This sacking ended the systematic accumulation of gold on a large scale in Europe until after the Dark Ages.
In a relatively short period of time, from 640 B.C. to the end of the Roman Empire, civilization saw the intense evolution in the use and value of gold and its use in coinage. The demand for it caused the development of mining techniques that vastly increased the availability. War and conquest produced a melting pot that recycled gold from all world sources into a common pot. Gold went from a possession of royalty to a medium of exchange available to the average citizens of the Roman Empire. The power of Rome was based in large part on the use of gold to extend its influence and culture across the known world. Gold, which is too soft to be used for weapons and tools, cannot help produce a food crop or heal the sick. It offered no practical benefit to ancient society beyond its possession, but had become the ultimate possession and measure of wealth of civilization.