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A History of Gold: the Ancient World

Throughout history, for as far back as we can tell, gold has been prized by mankind. Why is that? What makes gold so much more precious than, say, copper? Why is it that throughout history, gold has reflected wealth and power, has been a reason to go to war, and has been associated with the gods?

Its properties may have something to do with it: it is a malleable metal, which means that it is easy to work with. And it is pretty and shiny, designed to attract. Because of its purity, it would have been easy to extract, even with the most rudimentary of tools. And because of its softness, it would have been easy to shape. Finally, because of its inherent beauty, it would have been noticed, and used as adornment.

From the highly publicized discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, everyone knows about the importance of gold in Ancient Egypt. It was a time when people were being buried with their most prized possessions, and of course for the most prominent citizens, this meant that they were buried with their gold. Although now, it is hard to find a tomb that has not been robbed, the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, hidden and therefore unearthed completely intact, is evidence of the importance of gold to Ancient Egypt. In fact, hieroglyphs dating back to 2600 BC describe gold as a divine and indestructible metal, associated with the brilliance of the sun. The Ancient Egyptians even believed that the skin of their gods was golden. By 1500 BC, the huge expanses of Nubian gold-bearing regions had made Egypt a wealthy nation, and gold became the recognized standard medium of exchange for international trade. By 1200 BC, the Egyptians had mastered techniques to work with gold that are still in use in jewelry design today, such as beating the gold into leaves and mixing it with other metals to create alloys, thereby extending its use, and casting it using the lost-wax technique to create pieces of art and adornment.

Gold was equally as important to the Ancient Greeks, but mainly as a financial commodity. By 550 BC, the Greeks were mining for gold throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Alexander the Great went to war with the Persian Empire, in no small part for their gold. For many years the Greeks believed gold to be simply a particularly dense combination of water and sunlight. Later on, they would begin to practice alchemy—the "science" of turning base metals into gold.

The Ancient Romans also valued gold. They mined extensively throughout their empire, developing more and more sophisticated techniques to do the job. They learned to divert streams to mine hydraulically (the gold, being more dense than anything else, simply "dropped out" of the water) and they developed a technique to separate gold from rock called "roasting". Following a war that gave them access to gold mining regions of Spain, they learned to recover gold through stream gravels and hard-rock mining. In 50 BC, the first official gold coin—the Aureus—came into being: Julius Caesar, upon his victory in Gaulle, brought back enough gold to give each of his soldiers 200 coins. With this first coin, gold officially became currency, and its importance as a sign of wealth was sealed.