Gold, by Susan La Niece, has been published by The British Museum Press as a guide to their comprehensive collection, one of world's most important and extensive holdings.

The desire to possess this valuable commodity, has inspired myths and men for thousands of years. The fables that have grown up around it range from the story of Jason and the Argonauts to the greedy King Midas and his golden touch. Used in the past by diverse cultures around the world, it is a symbol of the sun, of magic, of wealth, and of great power both religious and political.

Gold by Susan La Niece - A British Museum Press Publication
Credit: British Museum Press

Layout of the Publication

The publication is arranged in seven chapters: 

  1. Fact and fantasy
  2. Status and power
  3. Money
  4. The goldsmith
  5. Jewellery and adornment
  6. Gold, gods and death
  7. All that glitters


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The Simple Facts

In these chapters La Niece gives us facts and figures about the earth's store of gold, where it can be found, and how different cultures have extracted it. It is widely spread across the globe but only worth mining in a very few places. It is quite possible that the world's seas and oceans contain in excess of 20 million tonnes, but the cost of extracting it makes it an uneconomic proposition. 

It doesn't rust, rot or get eaten by moths or insects. It is much too soft to be used in the manufacture of weapons or tools, but can be beaten into incredibly thin translucent leaves and used for decoration, ornamentation and jewellery. Many of the world's rarest manuscripts are decorated with it. It can be cut into small pieces and accurately weighed and measured. One gram of this amazing metal can be spun into a fine wire several kilometres long[1]

Any precious item is bound to be copied or faked and alchemists wasted many hours searching for the philosopher's stone. This was thought to be the tool that would allow them to convert base metals, like lead, into gold.  


Gold's Place in Economic History

The publication looks at the role of the brilliant yellow metal in economic history through various types of currency produced by different societies, such as early Indian coins, South African Kugerrands and sovereigns from the reign of George III. The book features excellent photographs giving the reader a rare opportunity to take a close-up look at these items.

Jewellery, Adornment and Decoration

Throughout history, and certainly in the present day, gold has been central to the production of jewellery and personal adornment. It keeps its value at times of economic downturn and remains a popular investment with many people. The book includes several excellent reproductions of bracelets, finger rings, necklaces, ear, nose and hair ornaments as well as fastenings for clothing.


Gold Fastening

Gold belt buckle from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo
Credit: image by Rob RoyRobRoyAus Accessed 12/12/2013

Ringlemere Cup - British Museum

Ringlemere Cup - British Museum
Credit: British Museum on Flickr accessed 12/12/2013

Status and Authority

La Niece outlines how this valuable metal has been used to represent status and authority and how various cultures have controlled access to sources and trade routes to ensure the continuing high value of gold. Without high value it could not have become a symbol of high status.

The text includes examples of early burials containing golden objects as well as a detailed examination of symbols of power, ranging from the British Parliament's Mace, representing power and authority delegated by the monarch to the House of Commons, to Torcs, metal neck rings worn by great warriors.

The Mold gold cape, British Museum
Credit: British Museum on Flickr accessed 12/12/2013

Myths and Legends

The author also discusses some of the many legends that have sprung up including the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason's quest was to travel to the east to find a Golden Fleece. A sheep's fleece would make an ideal way to filter gold from rivers and lakes. La Niece sites Greek geographer and historian Strabo (around 64 BC- approximately AD23) who wrote that ″around 400 BC in the country of Saones … the winter torrents brought down gold, which the barbarians collected in troughs pierced with holes and lined with fleeces″[1].

King Midas and the Golden Touch
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Artisans or Artists?

The author discusses those highly skilled craftsmen of the ancient Egyptians, the Mughals of India, the Aztecs and the Anglo-Saxons who were accorded special status because of their skills. Should we call them artisans or artists? Whatever! They used a variety of metalworking techniques, such as hammering, melting and casting. They created many beautiful objects, including coins, cups and chalices, rings, necklaces, brooches, pectorals and pendants, ornaments, fastenings for clothing, plaques, sculptures, reliquaries, and gifts for the gods.

Susan La Niece - About the Author

Susan La Niece is a senior metallurgist in the British Museum's Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. She has written widely on her subject including

Metal Plating and Patination (with Paul Craddock, 1993); The Heritage of 'Maitre Alpais': An International and Interdisciplinary Examination of Medieval Limoges Enamel (with Stefan Rohrs and Bet McLeod, 2010), and Metals and Mines: Studies in Archaeometallurgy (with Duncan R. Hook and Paul Craddock, 2007).


Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia
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Buy the Book?

By comparison to some of the coffee-table blockbuster publications issued by many of the world's art galleries and museums, this is a tiny book. Barely 20 x 20 cm, and only 128 pages, the publication features a fascinating and highly informative text supported by 120 superb colour illustrations. It's small enough to keep in a bag, so take it with on your next visit to the British Museum. Available from the British Museum and all good book stores, priced at £9.99 (ISBN: 978-07141-5076-5).   

Further Reading

 The following articles may also be of interest. 

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler
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(price as of Dec 12, 2013)