The Lure of Gold: An Artistic and Cultural History

The Lure of Gold: An Artistic and Cultural History


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789209009
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/15/2006
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 10.25(w) x 11.81(h) x (d)

About the Author

Dr. Hans-Gert Bachmann, who studied geosciences at the University of Bonn, has taken part in many archaeological excavations and surveys in Europe and the Near East. From 1963 to 1993 he held a senior position at Degussa, a global gold and silver refining company based in Germany. Currently he is an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main and at the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London.

Read an Excerpt

The Lure of Gold

An Artistic And Cultural History

By Hans-Gert Bachmann, Jorg Vollnagel, Steven Lindberg

Abbeville Press

Copyright © 2006 Hans-Gert Bachmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7892-0900-9

Excerpt from: The Lure of Gold

Introduction: Six Millennia of Gold

The Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages are established terms in human history—they refer concretely to the metals that were characteristic of the given historical period. By contrast, “golden ages” or “golden times” only ever truly existed in the imagination—as expectations or idealizing memories attached symbolically to a mythic metal that represented power, and to which magical significance and supernatural powers were attributed. The fascination that the yellow precious metal inspired has not diminished over millennia, and the symbolism associated with it has been the same across cultures and epochs: gold stands for the divine, the royal, the powerful, for the sun, light, and purity. Even as cultures have changed in response to economic, social, and intellectual revolutions, certain ideas have remained the same. The privilege that reserved gold above all for rulers, gods, and saints may have disappeared in the present, and it may have become a commodity available to all, but it has lost none of its timeless allure in the process. People today are attached not so much to the magic as to the beauty of the metal and its yellow gleam, which is why three-quarters of the world’s production of gold is used for jewelry to provide pleasure and display status.

Gold is a rare, valuable metal, but the high regard in which it is held is not based on that alone. It is immortal in that it resists corrosion. In human consciousness it has thus been associated with those other symbols of the permanent, the eternal, and the supernatural: the gods in early conceptions of spirituality and the beyond and the omnipotence of God in the monotheistic religions. For the god-kings of Egypt, gold was the flesh of the immortals. El Dorado, the gilded one, was the Colombian name for a ruler considered the equal of the sun, who was coated with mud and dusted with gold to make him the visible personification of the beliefs and ideas of his subjects. The apostate Israelites danced around Aaron’s golden calf. Every Bible concordance has a reference to the gold-covered columns of the temple that Solomon built.

Gold was such a desirable, valuable gift that from the Middle Ages to the early modern period alchemists attempted to transform base metals into “pure” gold by means of mysterious, mystical operations. Gold became the symbol of the sun, silver of the moon. Tracing the noun “gold” and the adjective “golden” through literature could become a life’s work. The metal has always had a place in language as the epitome of the beautiful, the noble, the unique.

The curse of gold and the greed for it have also become proverbial. Virgil spoke of the “auri sacra fames,” the sacred hunger for gold. Even an ancient author as sober and as concerned with facts as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) remarked in the thirty-third book of his Natural History, “O if only gold could be completely removed from life,” which did not stop him from paying it respect as something special. The English political economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) called gold a “barbarous” metal, and he was well aware that during the nineteenth century people from all countries streamed to the United States, Canada, and Australia in the hope of quick riches when they heard the news of sensational finds of gold.

Jason and the Argonauts: A Myth of Gold’s Origins

Until the early modern age, people had no idea how metal was formed or where it was most likely to be found. Diviners claimed to be able to search out both veins of water and metal deposits. Myths, sagas, and legends invoked the actions of the gods or mysterious powers to account for the existence of deposits. Pliny mentions, among other tales, that the Scythians believed that griffins had brought gold from unknown distant lands. For the Greeks, the tale of the Argonauts was an allegory of divine intervention in the discovery and extraction of the noble metal. The hero Jason was given the task of finding the Golden Fleece, a ram’s fleece filled with gold glitter that lay in a gold-bearing stream and was guarded by a dragon. To help him accomplish this mission, the goddess Athena directed that the ship Argo, after which the Argonauts were named, be built and sailed to Colchis, a coastal area on the eastern Black Sea. There, the reigning king, Aetes, promised Jason the Golden Fleece on the condition that he perform several tasks first. The hero fulfilled them, with the help of Medea, Aetes’ daughter, but the untrustworthy king refused to hand over the Golden Fleece and instead tried to kill the Argonauts. Medea then put to sleep the dragon who guarded the fleece, so that Jason could seize it. He and the Argonauts quickly boarded their ship and sailed away. The presence of gold in the sand of rivers, the associated tale of the Argonauts, and the extraction of gold glitter caught in the coats of animals long held a place in the human imagination, which is why Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) illustrated the Argonauts in his book De re metallica of 1556 (plate 14).

Gold Deposits and Gold Mining

Gold is in fact a widespread element in nature, though it is found only in limited concentrations. It makes up one part in five hundred mil-lion of the earth’s crust—silver is fifteen times and copper a million times more common. These statistics tell us little, however, because they do not take into account local deposits.

Apart from seawater, which contains such extremely small traces of gold that it cannot be extracted economically—just thirty billionths of an ounce per gallon (0.02 mg per m3)—gold is accumulated in primary and secondary deposits on the land (plate 20). Primary deposits are solid stone or veins of ore that contain gold, whereas secondary deposits consist primarily of so-called placers, which result from the disintegration of gold-bearing stone and the deposition of the gold as sediment in water (plate 13). Placers can be either loose deposits (recent placers) or stable, geologically older formations (fossil placers). Although it is usually found as dust, flakes, or grains, placer gold is occasionally found in larger clumps called nuggets (plate 16), which are very rare but can be quite large. In the nineteenth century a gold nugget supposedly weighing 2,975 pounds (1,350 kg) was found in the West Indies; it must have been about the size of a small chest of drawers. Australia has also boasted record nuggets of 193 pounds 6 ounces (87.74 kg) and 149 pounds 14 ounces (68 kg). Numerous rivers on all the continents have sometimes more, sometimes less gold.

It can pay to mine placers with as little as 0.02 ounces of gold per ton of sand (0.5 g/MT). The oldest method for extracting gold, washing, is based on gravity—that is, the specific gravity of gold, which, at around 19 grams (0.67 oz.) per cubic centimeter (0.061 in.3), is high in comparison to that of the materials with which it is found, like sand, which has a specific gravity of about 2.7 grams (0.095 oz.) per cubic centimeter. Using everything from panning dishes and simple juice boxes to modern extracting equipment, gold has been separated out of promising areas from time immemorial in both small- and large-scale operations. Simple extraction methods—like those described and illustrated by Agricola (plate 15)—have hardly changed at all since the pre-modern and early modern periods. Even today, 20 to 25 percent of world gold production is based on simple methods of separation by gravity. The washing of river gravel and sand is practiced not only by amateur mineral hunters and collectors but also by professionals in Indonesia, Brazil, and other countries. Sometimes the yield is lucrative, which can lead to headline-producing gold rushes. Until the middle of the eighteenth century there was gold washing on many riverbanks, including the Rhine. Ducats of Rhine gold were minted for Elector Karl Theodor of the Palatinate, whose residence was in Mannheim (plate 17).

Because placers are the product of the disintegration of primary de-posits, gold in solid stone has often been located by following the course of rivers and streams and constantly measuring how much placer gold their sediment contained. An increase in the gold content of the placer was a sure sign that one was getting closer to gold-bearing rock formations. Primary deposits of gold can develop in various ways and can be found in a wide variety of stones of different geological ages. Gold in quartz veins, commonly known as hard-rock gold deposits, is particularly widespread (plates 18, 19). It is considerably more difficult to extract than placer gold, requiring both mining techniques and experience in underground excavation. That is also true, however, of hard, fossilized placers, which can be located at a considerable depth, as they are in South Africa. The gold particles have to be freed from the extracted hard ore by pounding and grinding.

Mining gold ore requires planning and organization. It also requires the use of many trained laborers. The exploitation of slaves and prisoners in gold mines has rightly been denounced, but even with forced labor efficient extraction was possible only when experienced foremen and expert miners supervised and took responsibility. Providing for so many people and supplying necessities like wood and water called for practiced logistics, so in antiquity the mining of hard-rock gold deposits on a large scale was undertaken only by empires that had that kind of organization, like Egypt and Rome.

The purely mechanical separation of the valuable metal from the ac-companying stone was already being replaced in Roman times, according to Vitruvius (first century AD), by the process of amalgamation, in which the gold particles are compounded with mercury to form a gold amalgam. The gold thus forms a solid bond with the mercury, while the particles of stone and sand float in the liquid mercury, because they do not react with it, and can be skimmed off. The excess mercury is separated from the gold amalgam by pressing the mixture through a solid cloth or goatskin. The mercury passes through in droplets, but the gold amalgam remains be-hind as a waxlike mass. When heated, the mercury evaporates and pure gold is left behind in the form of a mustard-colored powder. Even today this process is the method of choice for small or family operations in newly industrialized and developing countries, despite the health risks posed by the poisonous fumes.

The most important high-technology method for extracting gold is only about a century old; it involves leaching gold-bearing ore with diluted cyanide solutions (plate 22). Without this process, which is employed worldwide, modern gold production would not be cost-effective. Many variations of this method have been developed in the meantime, differing mainly in how the precious metal is precipitated. The use of cyanide, which is extremely poisonous, means that mine operators have to maintain constant conscientious control and ensure that wastewater from the mines is completely decontaminated.

A third type of gold deposit is the so-called refractory ores, minerals that have gold atoms built into their crystal structures or that contain the metal in tiny cracks, crevices, and fissures. Such gold cannot be isolated by the usual methods (gravity or treatments with mercury or chemicals). The ore has to be pretreated, by roasting, for example. This destroys the minerals and liberates the gold they contain, thus allowing it to be extracted by the methods described above. It was generally thought that such deposits became significant only in the modern age, but a few years ago archaeologists discovered a Roman gold mine in northern Portugal in which the metal was clearly extracted from refractory gold ores. Hence this type of deposit already played a role in antiquity…

Excerpted from The Lure of Gold by Hans-Gert Bachmann, Jorg Vollnagel, Steven Lindberg. Copyright © 2006 Hans-Gert Bachmann. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents from:
The Lure of Gold


I. The Bronze Age and Early Advanced Civilizations
1. The Discovery of the “Sun Metal” in Prehistoric and Early Historical Times
2. Egypt: The Gold of the Pharaohs and Gods
3. Self-presentation and Divine Rites: The Gold Cultures of the Ancient Near East
4. Minoan Joie de Vivre and the Mycenaean Cult of Rulers

II. Europe in the First Millennium
5. Greece Influences an Age beyond Its Borders
6. The Mysterious Celts and Their Fascination with Gold
7. The Etruscans: Artists and Connoisseurs
8. Rome: From the Modesty of the Republic to the Splendor of the Empire

III. Great Non-European Cultures
9. Gold in the Islamic World: Between Moderation and Opulence
10. Gold for Buddha, Kings, and Emperors: Temples, Pagodas, and Insignia of Asia
11. The Discovery of the New World: The Legend of Eldorado
12. The Gleam on the Gold Coast: The Wealth of African Rulers

IV. The Western World from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century
13. Treasures of the Age of Migrations and the Early Middle Ages
14. Byzantium: The Gold-Glittering Bastion of Christianity
15. The Metaphysics of Light and the Demonstration of Power: Gold in the High and Late Middle Ages
16. The Metal of Artists, Alchemists, and Kings: The Renaissance, the Baroque, and Classicism
17. Gold in the Modern Age



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