The ancient world (pre 400 AD)In the quest for gold by various ancient civilizations, prisoners of war were sent to work the mines, as were slaves and criminals, all during a time when gold had no value as 'money,' but was just considered a desirable commodity in itself.
Detail from a panel on a gold plated shrine from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
EgyptAs anyone who has seen or heard about the incredible treasures of Tutankhamen probably knows, Ancient Egypt left a rich legacy of gold. Hieroglyphs stretching back to 2600 BC describe gold, which was considered by the ancient Egyptians to be a divine and indestructible metal, and was associated with the brilliance of the sun. Ancient Egyptians even believed the skin of their gods was golden.
By 1500 BC, the immense gold-bearing regions of Nubia had made Egypt a wealthy nation, and gold became the recognised standard medium of exchange for international trade. The oldest known treasure map (which today sits in the Turin Museum) also dates back to the gold of Ancient Egypt – around 1320 BC.
However, it wasn’t until 1200 BC that the Egyptians mastered the art of beating gold into leaf to extend its use, as well as joining it with other metals to create alloys, which allowed for improved hardness and colour variations. It was also around this time that Egyptians started to cast gold using the lost-wax technique, which is still at the heart of jewellery making today. Golden Greek funerary mask c1600-c1500 BC 'The Mask of of Agamemnon' as it is known. © The Print Collector / Heritage-Images / Imagestate.
GreeceGold was just as central to ancient Greece as ancient Egypt, but in a way that seems more familiar to us today – as a primarily financial commodity. By 550 BC, the Greeks had started mining for gold throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East regions, and for a long time thought it was made from a particularly dense combination of water and sunlight. In 344 BC, Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont with 40,000 men, beginning one of the most extraordinary campaigns in military history. Included in the spoils of war were vast quantities of gold from the Persian Empire. It wouldn’t be the last time that gold would be at the centre of bloody international conflicts.
According to Greek mythology, Agamemnon was king of Mycenae and the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy. He is believed to have lived around 1550 BC. This gold funerary mask, excavated at Mycenae by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, is reputed to be his. By 325 BC, the Greeks had mined in areas from Gibraltar to Asia Minor and Egypt, and would soon begin to practice alchemy – the quest to turn base metals into gold. Considering that gold is an element, the alchemists were of course never successful, but their efforts are clear evidence of gold’s ongoing mystique and desirability. Ancient Greek temple pendant, c630-620 BC. The pendant reflects the wealth of Rhodes and the skill of eastern Greek goldsmiths in the 7th century BC. Located in the Louvre, Paris. © The Print Collector / Heritage-Images / Imagestate.
RomeThe next great civilization to prize and value gold were the Romans. They, or at least their slaves and prisoners of war, mined gold extensively throughout the empire, developing the technology of mining to new levels of sophistication. For example, they would divert streams of water in order to mine hydraulically, and even pioneered 'roasting', the technique of separating gold from rock.
In 202 BC, during the second Punic War with Carthage, the Romans won access to the gold mining region of Spain, allowing them to recover gold through stream gravels and hard-rock mining. But it wasn’t until 50 BC that the widely used Aureus gold coin was issued – eight years after Julius Caesar brought back enough gold from a victory in Gaul to give 200 coins to each of his soldiers, and repay all of Rome’s debts.
Gold plaques from the Oxus treasure, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC. © The Print Collector / Heritage-Images / Imagestate.
Persian treasuresGold plaques from the Oxus treasure, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC. Man wearing Median costume; he has an akinakes (short sword) of a type depicted on reliefs at the Persian centre of Persepolis and represented in the Oxus treasure by a fine gold scabbard. The hooded man is sometimes identified as a priest because he carries a bundle of sticks known as a barsom. These were originally grasses that were distributed during religious ceremonies. The Oxus treasure is the most important collection of silver and gold to have survived from the Achaemenid period. This is one of the finest examples of a group of about fifty thin gold plaques which may have been votive objects left as a pious act in a temple or shrine near the Oxus River at Takht-i Kuwad, Tadjikistan. © The Print Collector / Heritage-Images / Imagestate
The middle ages (400 – 1400 AD)Compared to earlier and later periods, the middle ages was relatively dry in terms of gold’s history, but certainly not without incident.
The Dome of the Rock - The Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the oldest existing Islamic monument. It was built in 685-691 on the site where Mohammed is said to have ascended to Heaven. The Temple Mount itself is sacred as is an Islamic shrine and a major landmark located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The dome was refurbished in1998 using 80 kilograms of gold. © Rolf Richardson / Spectrum / Imagestate.
The Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, when Emperor Romulas Augustus was deposed by the Goths. In the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire resumed gold mining in central Europe and France, for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. In 788, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, overran the Avars and plundered their vast quantities of gold, making it possible for him to take control over much of Western Europe.
With the Norman conquest in 1066, a metallic currency standard was finally re-established in Great Britain, with the introduction of a system of pounds, shillings, and pence. The pound was literally a pound of sterling silver.
In the second half of the 13th century, Marco Polo wrote of his travels to the Far East, where the “gold wealth was almost unlimited.” In 1284, Venice introduced the gold Ducat, which soon became the most popular coin in the world, and remained so for over five hundred years. In the same year, Great Britain issued its first major gold coin – the Florin. But it wasn’t until 1377 that >Great Britain shifted to a monetary system based on gold and silver.
Interior of Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy. The 12th-century cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova is a blend of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles. Byzantine craftsmen were employed to create the masterpieces inside; some of the largest mosaics in the world. A golden vision of God creating the Earth and Heavens, the history of the Israelite and the story of Christ. Creator: Dr Stephen Coyne, Source: E&E Image Library.
Throughout the early modern period gold continued to play an important part in our cultural expression. Whether in the realm of religion, politics, education, architecture or pure entertainment, gold's glow would always impress and inspire.
Battle of the tribes, watched by Majnun, c1492. (artist unknown) Majnun watches a battle fought by men on camels with swords and circular shields. Gold background with Persian script at top left. From a richly illustrated edition of "The Story of Leyla and Majnun" by the great Persian poet Nezami . © The British Library/Heritage-Images/Imagestate.
The 16th century saw no decline in ruthless leaders lusting after gold. In 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain made his famous call to action: “Get gold, humanely if you can, but all hazards, get gold”, launching massive expeditions to the newly discovered lands of the Western Hemisphere. It wasn’t until nearly 200 years later, in 1700, that gold was discovered in Brazil, which by 1720 became the largest producer, responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world’s gold output.
In 1700, Isaac Newton (as Master of the Mint) fixed the price of gold in Great Britain at 84 shillings, 11.5 pence per troy ounce. The Royal Commission, composed of Newton, John Locke and Lord Somers, recommended a recall of all old currency and the introduction of new a coin, with a gold to silver ratio of 16:1. The gold price established in Great Britain was to for over 200 years.
In 1744, the resurgence of gold mining in Russia began with the discovery of a quartz outcrop in Ekaterinburg. Forty years later, the first US gold coin was struck by Ephraim Brasher, a goldsmith, to be followed in 1792 by the United States being placed on a bimetallic silver-gold standard under the Coinage Act, which defined the dollar. However, it wasn’t until 1799 that the United States first discovered gold – a 17-pound nugget in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
St Peter, 1499.Photographer: D Fusaro. Detail from the 'Madonna of Mercy' panel by Hans Clemer, Civic Museum of Casa Cavassa, Italy. © E&E Image Library/Heritage-Images/Imagestate.
Modern (1800 onwards)The 19th century began, in some ways quite prophetically, with gold being discovered at Little Meadow Creek, North Carolina in 1803, sparking the first US gold rush. For the next 25 years, North Carolina supplied all the domestic gold coined for currency by the US. Mint in Philadelphia. In 1817, Britain introduced the Sovereign, a small gold coin valued at one pound sterling.
Statue of Jeanne D Arc at the Place des Pyramides, Paris by Emmanuel Frémiet (1874); golden horse and gold amazone representing the medieval french heroine ©Bildagentur RM/TIPS/Imagestate Enlarge >>
Perhaps the century’s pivotal ‘gold moment’ came in 1848, when John Marshall found flakes of gold while building a sawmill for John Sutter near Sacramento, California, triggering the California Gold Rush and hastening the settlement of the American West. But the effects weren’t confined to the United States; in 1850 Edward Hammond Hargraves, returning to Australia from California, predicted he would find gold in his home country within a week. And he did, in New South Wales. 1868 saw the next major discovery, in South Africa, where George Harrison uncovered gold while digging up stones to build a house. Since then, South Africa has been the source of nearly 40% of all gold ever extracted from the earth.
In 1900, the Gold Standard Act placed the United States officially on the gold standard, committing the country to maintain a fixed exchange rate in relation to other countries on the gold standard. This lasted until 1919, when World War I forced both the USA and Britain to suspend it. But the early 20th century also saw new discoveries and developments in finding out about the versatility of gold. The father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, even speculated about our obsession with gold, which he of course put down to ‘the erotic fantasies of early childhood’!
In 1927, an extensive medical study conducted in France proved gold could be valuable in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Also, AT&T used gold contacts pressed into a germanium surface, as they developed the first transistor in the 1940s. In 1965, Colonel Edward White used a gold-coated visor to protect his eyes from the sun during the first space walk on the Gemini IV mission, and gold-coated visors are still a standard safety feature for any modern astronaut. In fact, gold would continue to play an important role in space exploration. For example, the first space shuttle (launched in 1982) used gold in its liquid hydrogen fuel pump.
As we enter the 21st century in earnest, gold is still one of the world’s most prized materials. It is now widely associated with notions of achievement; Olympic medals, Nobel prizes, Academy awards and the Palme d’Or (the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize), all rely on the positive connotations of gold. There have always been exceptions to this, from the golden calf in the Book of Exodus suggesting idolatry, to communist propaganda using gold as a symbol of bourgeois greed. And in Hollywood plots, stories of crime and greed often hinge on gold – Goldfinger, The Maltese Falcoln and Three Kings being some of the most famous examples. But by and large, gold continues its long tradition of being thought of positively throughout the world.
In practice, gold remains an economic anchor (the Euro is partly backed by gold reserves), a technological tool (giant gold-coated mirrors were used to capture the most detailed images of Neptune and Uranus ever produced) and is of course never likely to lose its aesthetic appeal. So the story continues…
Don’t forget to have a look at our After the gold rush page for more facts and figures about gold production in the 20th century.
Gold and money
History of goldFrom the first discoveries of gold in ancient times, its beauty and the ease with which it could be worked have inspired craftsmen to use it to create ornaments, not just for adornment, but as potent symbols of wealth and power. The first pure gold coins were struck by King Croesus of Lydia (present-day Turkey) during his reign between 560 and 547 BC and gold coins have continued as legal tender since that time.
Mine productionIt is known that the Egyptians mined gold before 2000 BC and the first coin containing gold was struck in the eighth century BC.
The best estimates available suggest that the total volume of gold mined over history is approximately 158,000 tonnes, of which around 65% has been mined since 1950. Production has been on a downward trend since 2001, due principally to the reduction in exploration budgets that accompanied the low gold price of the late 1990s and the consequent fall in the number of major new gold discoveries. Independent analysts believe mine output will remain relatively flat for the next few years. For a history of gold mining >>