ancient Roman aurus gold coins

3Gold, symbol of wealth, power and pristine beauty, has played a central role in human history for many thousands of years. Its appeal have made it a sought-after material since ancient times, influencing economies, inspiring myths and driving exploration and Gold Rushes.

The discovery of gold has been unanimous evidence of the evolution of human societies of many cultures from the ancient Bronze Age to modern times since it was used in early civilizations as a symbol of prestige and to revere the gods.

The origin of gold

The origin of gold is indeed extraterrestrial. If we find it on Earth, it is because of a cataclysmic phenomenon that occurred in space several billion years ago. Although there are several opinions on the subject, two hypotheses are currently accepted as being the most plausible: the first theory would be that the precious metal was born following a collision of two stars and the second at the implosion of a supernova.

A supernova is a star at the end of its life. According to this hypothesis, gold could be born due to the explosion of this type of so-called supermassive star and a succession of events:

  • the core of this star, made of hydrogen, is compressed due to the gravitational pressure of the star
  • it triggers nuclear fusion
  • this transforms hydrogen molecules, a light and simple chemical element, into helium, carbon and oxygen, heavy chemical elements. This process lasts millions of years
  • these heavy chemical elements consume more and more quickly, which has the effect of transforming them into metals (iron, nickel)
  • the core pressure then dissipates, causing the star to collapse on itself, producing exceptional energy and exploding into a supernova
  • under extreme pressure, electrons in the nucleus transform into neutrons
  • these neutrons are then absorbed by ferrous elements, and in just a few seconds become metals composed of heavy elements, such as uranium, lead, silver… and gold

Under the effect of the shock wave generated by the expansion of the supernova, these elements are projected into the cosmos. Gas and particles condense, forming new stars and planets, some of which will have gold deposits in them.

The other theory is the collision of two stars as the origin of gold. This theory appeared in 2013, supported by an astronomy professor at Harvard University, Edo Berger, who postulated the hypothesis that the origin of gold stems from the collision of two neutron stars.

We find this neutron story again! Under the effect of the shock of the collision of the two stars, which is extremely brutal, nuclear reactions occur in the neutron cloud… and then allow the immediate formation of metals with heavy elements and therefore gold, which would have been created in such an amount of gold that it would represent ten times the mass of the Moon.

Ancient Beginnings

If it has been more than 6,500 years since man produces jewelry and crowns in gold, these are probably the Egyptians who were the first to give it a mystical value. According to the ancient Egyptian texts, gold materialized the fire of the sun on earth; the flesh of Gods was made of gold; by covering the statues of the gods with gold, they were given literally life.

The Bible itself mentions gold over 400 times: and God, Sinai, commands Moses that the ark of the covenant be covered with pure gold.

In parallel of its religious functions, gold played a significant role in the rise of certain peoples or certain civilizations:

  • the mines of Nubia for Egypt
  • the mines from Spain to Rome
  • the American El Dorado for the Spain of Charles V and of Philip II
  • the Witwatersrand deposit, the largest in the world, for South Africa/li>
  • the gold rushes which largely worked to populate California and Australia

Finally, gold has been closely associated with the invention of the very idea of ​​money, probably in Lydia in the 7th century BCE time.

For more than 27 centuries, gold played a leading role in the system monetary by providing stability and confidence. This anchoring of gold in the very heart of the monetary system persisted in all its force until 1971, when currencies have definitively ceased to be linked to gold. Gold has become a “barbaric relic”, according to the expression used by John Maynard Keynes in 1924.

This role of gold in our history has been inscribed in our minds, and in those of certain investors, an image which may not perfectly correspond to reality. Today, many virtues are attributed to investing in gold, too much, no doubt. Let us review these alleged virtues, taking as a point of view comparison with other raw materials, at the risk of causing gold to fall from its pedestal

The oldest gold object ever found was discovered in Bulgaria in 2016, a golden pearl more than 6,500 years old from the archaeological site of Tell Yunatsite, in Bulgaria: a small gold bead only 4 millimeters in diameter with a weight of only 0.15 g. According to archaeologists, it could have been made between 4,600 and 4,500 BC, some 200 years before the manufacture of artifacts which were until then considered to be the oldest in gold. These latter, constituting a set of jewelry, were found in 1972 in a tomb in the Varna necropolis, also located in Bulgaria, near the Black Sea.

The Ancient Egyptians

Ancient Egypt, renowned for its monumental architecture and rich culture, was also a major center for gold production and craftsmanship. Gold held a special place in Egyptian society, symbolizing the eternal and the divine. Pharaohs and high-ranking officials were often buried with elaborate gold artifacts intended to accompany them in the afterlife. The treasures of Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, include the iconic gold mask, jewelry, and chariots, showcasing the Egyptians’ advanced goldsmithing skills.

Gold was also used in religious practices, adorning temples and statues of deities. The Egyptians sourced their gold from mines in Nubia, to the south, which became synonymous with wealth and prosperity. The hieroglyphic symbol for gold, a collar, reflects its importance in Egyptian culture and economy.

Gold in the Classical World

The civilizations of classical antiquity, including the Greeks and Romans, also prized gold. The Greeks used gold to create stunning jewelry and ceremonial objects. The Mycenaeans, an early Greek civilization, produced intricate gold masks and grave goods, exemplified by the “Mask of Agamemnon.”

The Romans, on the other hand, amassed vast amounts of gold through conquest and trade. Roman emperors adorned themselves with gold and commissioned elaborate works of art and currency. The Roman aureus, a gold coin, became a symbol of the empire’s wealth and stability. Roman gold mines, such as those in Spain and Dacia (modern-day Romania), were crucial to sustaining the empire’s economy.

Medieval and Byzantine Gold

The medieval period saw gold being used extensively in religious and royal contexts. The Christian Church became a major patron of goldsmiths, commissioning religious artifacts like chalices, reliquaries, and altarpieces. The Crown of Saint Stephen, the coronation crown of Hungary’s kings, symbolizes divine approval and royal authority.

In the Byzantine Empire, gold was used in religious iconography and imperial regalia. The treasures of Constantinople, particularly those housed in the Hagia Sophia, included gold mosaics, crosses, and vestments. The Byzantines also minted solidus coins, which became a stable and widely accepted currency throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

The Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries marked a significant chapter in the history of gold. European explorers, driven by tales of vast riches in the New World, set sail across the Atlantic. Spanish conquistadors, such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, plundered enormous amounts of gold from the Aztec and Inca civilizations. The most infamous example is the ransom of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, who filled a room with gold to secure his release, only to be executed afterward.

These conquests brought immense wealth to Spain, fueling its economy and making it a dominant global power. The influx of gold also had profound effects on the European economy, leading to inflation and changing trade dynamics.

The Gold Rushes

Gold is at the origin of the population movements, the creation of cities, wars, etc. Since the dawn of time, men have moved mountains to access this noble metal.

The story of the Gold Rushes is a fever that originated in the United States in 1799 (North Carolina), spread to Georgia in 1829 and reached the West Coast in 1848 (California). This date marked the start of the greatest gold rush ever known. But also the largest migration of populations in history to exploit newly discovered gold deposits. It’s the biggest rush and the time of the “forty-niners”: that’s what we call all the people who came rushing to California.

It was a carpenter named James W. Marshall who was the cause on January 24, 1848. Inspecting the water inlet channel of the sawmill belonging to John Sutter, he discovered the first nuggets of gold. The news had the effect of a bomb as far as Europe and Asia. A human tide of thousands of poor workers crossed the Atlantic, convinced of making their fortune in a country where gold was collected like stones. There were hundreds of thousands between 1848 and 1859 who tried their luck by dreaming of becoming rich.

In 1857 the discovery in Nevada, of a new vein called the “Comstock Lode” caused a new rush of gold prospectors. The prospectors had barely found a few grams of gold on a few placers when they set up a first canvas camp. As the vein proves fruitful, the huts appear with the arrival of the first traders, who will make their fortune more quickly than those who left for the mine with shovel and pickaxe or towards the river with the sieve and the pan. This was notably the case of Levis Strauss who invented and marketed the famous jeans (resistant pants for gold miners and miners).

Gold rushes were not only present in the American states. The same story has been repeated all over the world. From Alaska to Australia to Africa, many countries have experienced their periods of intensive exploitation of gold-bearing rock veins. As with every gold rush, once the vein is exhausted the dream disappears. The gold rushes died out at the beginning of the 20th century, ruining thousands of people and making fortunes for only a privileged few.

Nowadays the image of the gold prospector armed with his pick and accompanied by his donkey is folklore. It gave way to more sophisticated but, unfortunately more destructive means of research, notably with hydraulic extraction. It is the large mining companies that profit from the extraction of gold in veins which are often found underground.

Modern Gold Mining

The modern era has seen advancements in gold mining techniques and technology. Open-pit mining, cyanidation, and heap leaching have made it possible to extract gold from low-grade ores, increasing the overall production of gold. Major gold-producing countries today include China, Australia, Russia, and the United States.

Gold continues to be a critical component of global finance and industry. Central banks hold large reserves of gold as a hedge against inflation and economic instability. Gold is also used in various industrial applications, including electronics and aerospace, due to its excellent conductivity and resistance to corrosion.

Cultural and Symbolic Significance

Beyond its economic value, gold has maintained a powerful cultural and symbolic significance throughout history. In many societies, gold is associated with the divine and the eternal. Its incorruptibility and radiant appearance make it a fitting material for objects intended to last forever, such as burial goods, religious artifacts, and symbols of power.

In Hindu culture, gold is considered auspicious and is used extensively in religious rituals and weddings. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is a stunning example of gold’s religious significance, with its gold-covered sanctum drawing millions of pilgrims annually.

In Western cultures, gold has historically symbolized wealth, power, and success. This is evident in phrases like “golden age” or “gold standard,” which denote peak prosperity and quality. The use of gold medals in the Olympics further underscores its association with excellence and achievement.

The Fascination with Lost Gold Treasures

The idea of lost gold treasures continues to captivate the public imagination. Stories of hidden caches and sunken ships fuel a thriving industry of treasure hunting. The legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine in Arizona, for example, has prompted countless expeditions, despite the risks and uncertainties involved.

Similarly, the mystery of the Nazi gold train, rumored to be hidden in the mountains of Poland, has intrigued historians and adventurers alike. Despite numerous searches, the train and its supposed cargo of gold and valuables remain elusive, adding to the mythos of lost treasures.

The history of gold is a testament to its enduring appeal and significance. From ancient artifacts and religious icons to tales of exploration and modern economic stability, gold has been a central thread in the tapestry of human civilization. Its unique properties, combined with its cultural and symbolic meanings, ensure that gold will continue to captivate and inspire for generations to come.