Mankind has known of gold since prehistoric times. Ancient man would have found placer deposits in streams, possibly one of the first metals ever discovered. They would have admired its luster and unusual weight and worked it into crude trinkets. As time went on and our tools and understanding improved, so would our uses for gold and our ability to mold it. By the year 5000 BCE, goldworking was already a highly skilled art. Ancient Egyptian records depict gold being mined and wrought while ancient gold mines in that area can be dated back to at least 4000 BCE. Sumerian sun worshipers were excellent craftsmen with gold, as well silver and copper, constructing whole towers that were sheathed in precious metal. Gold was a highly prized commodity, even in ancient times, and something that quickly went beyond the reach of common men. It became a symbol of power and wealth, associated with spiritual leaders, kings, and conquerers.
The Egyptians were gold juggernaughts in the ancient world. They were the first people to organize extensive mining and refinement activies and their production was finely controlled. They were also great conquerers and often took gold from the Sumerians. To give scope to the Egyptian love of gold and their proficiency with it: King Tutankhamen's tomb, discovered in 1922, contained thousands of objects made from precious metal, including gilded chariots and a bejeweled gold and silver throne. Moreover, his sarcophogus, a lavishly ornamented nested tier of coffins weighing in at 224 pounds, had an innermost coffin made entirely out of gold. Ancient Egyptians knew how to hammer out gold sheets, making leaves of gold so thin that over 250,000 of them could be stacked one on top of another and form a pile only one inch in height. Scholars estimate that the ancient Egyptians produced, or took in conquest, nearly five million pounds of gold. Unfortunately, very little of it has survived in its original form to this day. The vast majority of Egyptian gold was placed in temples and tombs and these were systematically pilfered by organized robber bands.
Other ancient civilizations that made large use of gold were the Aegeans, Persians, and Etruscans. The Aegean civilization, which began on the island of Crete, was at a maritime crossroads. The island had no gold deposits of its own, yet the Aegeans acquired massive quantities of gold through trade alone. The Achaemenid dynasty had an opulent way with gold and was known for bribing enemy states into going to war with one another, eventually conquering both sides after they were weakened and reclaiming every ingot. From after 700 BCE, Etruscan and Greek goldwork was among the finest of its time. The Greeks developed exquisite, geometrically based designs, which would later influence Roman tastes. The royal treasure of Persian king Darius III, which was produced over centuries, was buried somewhere between Bagdad and the Caspian Sea after Persia was defeated twice by Alexander the Great. The location of Darius' massive treasure remains unknown to this day.
Egypt would remain the richest gold-producing region worldwide until the Romans began working in Spain. By 100 AD, with almost all of Spain under the Imperial banner, Roman engineers learned how to create deep, ventilated mining shafts, which they drained with waterwheel pumps, and broke open the hardest rocks by fire setting, a technique in which rock is first heated with flame and then rapidly cooled with water. The sudden cooling causes the rock to shatter. Entire mountains were washed down and broken away, the gold literally drained from them by aqueducts that went up to 800 feet in the air. Roman-mined Spanish gold was shipped out from the Port of Seville to the rest of the Empire. Ironically, this same port would be the reciever of gold shipments from the Spanish conquered New World centuries later, though this is a tragedy for another time.
Clearly, gold and our love for it is nothing new. It is an item that has been admired, worked with, and fought over for thousands of generations. To date, ancient man has completed feats of splendor that, with all our technology, we cannot yet replicate. Men have dedicated their entire lives to shaping and/or looking for gold and whole civilizations have been built up and shattered upon its lustrous surface. Our currencies are more abstract these days and do not rely on solid metal to back them, but the precious material still has a very special place for us, even in our digital society.
Be sure to read our next article: Brief History of Gold Part Two