A Human Element: Gold from Antiquity to the Present
Gold artifacts excavated from a burial complex dating from the 3rd millennium BC at the site of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, an ancient Sumerian civilization located along the Euphrates River in present-day Southern Iraq, reveal the function of gold in a hierarchical Bronze Age society as a symbol of royalty or nobility along with the development of advanced goldsmithing techniques such as filigree, lost-wax casting, and gilding. Around the same period, these methods were also utilized among ancient Pre-Colombian civilizations in the Peruvian highlands. During the period from 1500-1200 BC, the palaces and tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs were adorned with exquisite works of gold as goldsmiths mastered a variety of techniques and took care to preserve Egypt’s access to gold mines in Nubia and the trade routes that brought gold and other precious commodities that strengthened the wealth and prestige of the Egyptian dynasties. By 1000 BC, gold was officially used as a form of monetary exchange in China, and by the 6th century BC, King Croesus began to mint a form of official gold coinage in the Anatolian kingdom of Lydia that helped to foster regional trade relations and preserve the territory’s legendary wealth. The Old Testament contains hundreds of references to gold and its uses in the kingdoms of Israel, Judah, and surrounding states extending as far as Africa from as early as ca. 1200 BC. In the 4th century BC, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered the gold-rich lands of Persia and the Near East in a campaign that widened the power and influence of Greek culture and filled western coffers with gold, setting off centuries of expansion of the Greek and later the Roman civilizations in which access to gold sources in African, Near Eastern, Eastern European, and Iberian mines was an essential tool of foreign conquest and settlement and the preservation of political power.
Throughout antiquity in cultures around the globe, gold was considered precious not only as a means of wealth, but also for a range of physical and spiritual properties ascribed to the lustrous metal, often viewed as a direct product of the divine because of its beauty, durability, and apparent perfection. Beginning as early as the Bronze Age, there is evidence for the emergence of the deeply ancient proto-scientific and occult practice of alchemy, a quest to transmutate base metals such as lead into gold. Ancient alchemical writings exist from the Mediterranean region, the Near East, and Asia, and by Classical Antiquity were concentrated among Greek and Jewish scholars in Alexandria, where ancient Egyptian and Hermetic texts containing the keys and formulas to the mystical tradition were housed in the library. The prevalence of alchemy across cultures reflects more common perceptions of a connection between gold and the divine as manifest in nature’s perfection. Gold was thus considered to possess the power to prolong or immortalize life by tapping in to this spiritual connection, an ideology that parallels the very evolution and purpose of religious practices in human cultures. From the Inca perception of gold as the “sweat of the sun” to Aristotelian theories of the elements and human life, gold’s purported spiritual and mystical attributes epitomized the very aspirations of humanity to achieve life beyond the temporal world.
The economic, artistic, spiritual, and political significance and value of gold seemed to converge during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages in a wide variety of cultures – in the rise of the Byzantine Empire, among the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe and Britain, the South Korean Kingdom of Silla, and in the Chinese dynasties, to name only a few. Gold’s range of uses supported the fabric of human life: in coronation ceremonies it reinforced kingship and the power of the state; in religious rituals it facilitated access to God and the ascendancy of priestly classes; it generated prestige and communicated religious and political ideologies through art and architecture; it reinforced social hierarchies as an indication of status; it contributed to the expansion of literacy and the culture of the book in the illuminated manuscripts produced by scribes in early medieval scriptoria; it perpetuated marriage and family ties as a predominant type of dowry; and contributed to the expansion of international trade and, in turn, global navigation and exploration, as a transportable and widely accepted form of monetary exchange.
During the medieval period, gold was an essential component of the formation of the merchant republics and city-states in Europe in which the rise of the modern state and the development of capitalist economies occurred. Advanced minting practices guaranteed standardized systems of value for gold coins such as the Venetian ducat or the florin of the Florentine Republic provided currencies that were accepted as money of account in international markets. Gold as a form of monetary exchange thus facilitated economic expansion and the early of development of systems of banking and credit in the goldsmiths and money changer guilds. Creation of wealth during the 14th and 15th centuries generated a new form of material culture and patterns of consumption emanating from the increasingly powerful bourgeois class, a trend that fostered much of the patronage of art and literature during the Renaissance by fueling demand with new patterns of spending disposable wealth. Gold was thus central to the circumstances behind the phenomenon of Renaissance Italy, a period when renewed appreciation for the ideologies and practices of Greek and Roman antiquity and revolutionary new attitudes about natural philosophy, civic life, and individuality coalesced to form what historian Jacob Burkhardt considered to be the nucleus of modern society.
The emergence of more sophisticated economies during the Renaissance contributed to the predominance of political centralization in Europe and the Middle East that came to be known as the “rise of the modern state” in the early modern era. Maintaining a strong treasury with adequate gold reserves, upholding authoritative monetary policy and regulating the flow of gold and silver bullion and the minting of national coinage, and the opulent patronage of the arts as a demonstration of power and authority in courtly life were essential components of empire building and balance-of-power politics among the great powers of Europe and the Mediterranean from the 16th to the 18th century. Demand for gold in this period created a need for greater territorial expansion and access to efficient trade routes which set in motion centuries of discovery and exploration that resulted in European settlement and colonization of North and South America, India, Africa, and Asia. In order to support the widening bureaucratic and economic functions of the state, banking and credit institutions expanded and modern academic disciplines developed in colleges and universities to advise rulers and government administrators. Gold thus influenced the establishment of modern economic theory, chemistry, natural history, geology, and industrial technology.
Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California’s Sacramento River Valley in 1848, and subsequent 19th-century gold rushes in Australia, the Klondike, and South Africa, the global production of gold increased tenfold, a phenomenon that led to the western expansion of the United States, scientific and technological advancements in the mining industry, and a level of gold reserve assets that made the era of the gold standard possible between 1880 and the 1930’s, when 59 countries around the world adopted a currency pegged to either a uniform gold standard or a gold exchange standard. During this period, statesmen and economic advisers considered gold to be integrally tied to the power and legitimacy of the state. Decades after the unraveling of the gold standard as it became unsustainable in the economic environment of post-World War II global economies, economists and political leaders clung fiercely to the idea of the need to maintain currencies convertible into gold equivalents, many sharing the sentiment of French economist Jacques Rueff who feared the collapse of the gold standard would undermine the preservation of free democratic society. Adherence to the gold standard had fostered credibility and cooperation among nations and was thought to have contributed to the creation of political and economic stability in developing regions.
With the final collapse of the gold standard and global pegging of foreign currencies to the U.S. dollar at exchange rates tied to fixed prices and adequate gold reserves in 1971, national currencies were no longer convertible into gold and conceptions of value in monetary policy adjusted to meet the growing needs of new dynamics in more global economic and finance systems. Yet gold reserves remained an important tool among national treasuries and supranational institutions such as the International Monetary Fund in the preservation of economic stability and international relations. Gold continued to shine, however; although no longer at the core of systems of monetary exchange, gold assumed new levels of value during the late 20th century as a traded commodity when scientific innovations in nanotechnology discovered significant applications of gold in its nanoparticulate form that could be efficiently employed in critical emergent industries such as computer microcircuit boards, aerospace technologies, information and communication technology, transportation and energy, biomedical research, and health and beauty products.
At the beginning of the 21st century, global economic crisis and the erosion of faith in banking and credit institutions triggered an unprecedented increase in the price of gold and a resurgence of investment in gold as an asset. When in doubt, it seems, humankind still retains a deep regard and faith in gold’s supreme and enduring value. Indeed, it is ironic that during periods of strife or crisis, scholars, politicians, and citizens have often weighed in on gold’s function in contemporary society, and in doing so engaged in an ancient debate. Perhaps gold’s ultimate purpose in human history will prove to be reminiscent of the myth in which the ancient Athenian philosopher Solon reminded King Croesus of Lydia that human happiness may run a course at pace with riches, but is never simply based on wealth.
Excerpted from Gold: A Cultural Encyclopedia, by Shannon Kenny Venable