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The History of Gold

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GoldThe History of Gold Diagram

Gold is a very heavy precious metal with a bright yellow colour and a brilliant lustre or shine.  As it is not affected by air or water it never rusts or tarnishes or grows dull, and when it is pure it is so soft that it is very easily hammered into different shapes.  It has been valued for these qualities since the earliest times.  Golden bowls and cups and ornaments made nearly 5000 years ago by the Sumerians (a people who lived in what is now Iraq) still exist and are as beautiful as anything made by goldsmiths of later ages.  At an early date, gold was made into hoops to bind the hair and later these hoops became crowns and coronets.

Gold has always been a scarce metal and because of this people who owned gold found that they could always exchange it for other things.  In this way gold came to be looked upon as a standard value and possession of it gave the owner a sense of security.  He felt that his gold would always be worth a great deal whatever happened.  Even today many people hoard golden objects and coins.  Gold was first used for coins in about 700 BC.  The value of the coin depended on its weight and purity.

Later, bankers kept the gold coins which their customers left with them locked up in strong rooms.  When the customer wanted to spend his money the banker gave him a signed piece of paper called a bank note in which he promised in writing to hand the gold to the owner of the note on demand.  These bank notes could be used for buying and selling and if the banker was honest they were as good as gold.  Paper money has taken place of gold coinage in the UK and most other countries.  The British gold coins, rarely seen since World War I are the sovereign, about the size of a shilling and originally worth £1 and the half sovereign, a smaller coin worth about 50p.

The amount of gold so far produced in the world is about 77,000 tons, enough to a big solid block as big as a fair sized house.  About two-thirds of this is held by different countries as the national reserves of wealth and nearly half of it is in the underground vaults belonging to the United States at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

In ancient times, most of the gold came from Egypt, Asia Minor and India.  The Greeks and Romans used to seize gold from their defeated enemies and send their prisoners as slaves to work in mines.  The chief European mines were then in Transylvania (southeast Europe) but the supplies were never very large and in the middle ages men called alchemists began to search for a magic substance called the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ which they thought could be used to change cheaper metals such as lead into gold.  This search was never successful although it continued well into the 19th century.  It did however help the chemists to learn a great deal about metals and other substances and to lay the foundations of the science of chemistry.  As late as 1898 Dr Stephen Emmens, a New York chemist, used to regularly sell to the US mint gold which he said was made from silver.  It has never been proved that he was a fraud.  More recently, nuclear scientists have changed platinum into gold, but the cost of the process and of the platinum itself make it unprofitable.

In the 16th century Spanish explorers brought back gold plundered from the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru and mined gold in New Granada which is now Columbia.  Later, gold was found in other parts of central and southern America and in the Ural Mountains.  The whole output of this was only about 12 tons per year.  The picture was completely changed by several discoveries of rich goldfields in the second half of the 19th century.  These discoveries caused adventurous people to rush to the new goldfields in the hope of getting rich quickly.  The country producing by far the most gold is South Africa after which come Canada, Russia, the USA and Australia.  The amount produced in the world is about 1500 tons a year.

 Gold mine is Southern Rhodesia           Mexican boy using a cradle to sort gold from gravel

Gold Rush

For many people the words Gold Rush mean the rush of people to the area around the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory, North Western Canada, after gold had been found there in 1896.  Actually, this was only one and one of the latest of several similar attempts to find fortunes in gold or diamonds.  It is explained first in this article, however, because the courage people showed in reaching and working in such a remote and freezing cold region made it the most spectacular of these attempts.

In the summer of 1896 a Red-Indian hunter called Skookum Jim discovered gold in a stretch of water about 24 feet wide named Bonanza Creek.  Some gold had already been found in other parts of the Yukon area, but this find was richer than any of the other earlier ones.  Within eight days Skookum Jim and two relatives took about eighty ounces of gold from the muddy waters of the stream which flowed through a marshy valley into the Klondike River.

Miners working on other sites in the neighbourhood hurried to the scene, where they found more rich deposits of gold in a stream flowing into Bonanza Creek, and elsewhere.  These first comers made great fortunes and as yet there were only a few hundred searchers.

The news spread southwards, however, and by Midsummer 1897 a new town called Dawson or Dawson City was housing 4000 people in log cabins.  A year later Dawson’s population was increased by many thousands of fresh adventurers, ranchers, labourers, clerks, miners, business and professional men who arrived from various parts of Canada and the United States.  Many other fortune hunters however were left behind on the rough tracks or in the gambling dens of Skagway and other small towns that had grown up like mushrooms along the tracks leading northwards.

When this great rush of people reached the Klondike in 1898 gold was not being found in new areas, but it was beginning to be dug from the ground.  Earlier it had been ‘panned’, or taken out of the rivers be people using something rather like a frying pan which they dipped into the water and at each dipping took up water, stones and, they hoped, gold.  More than 30,000 people were living in and around Dawson at the height of the gold rush, many of them in houseboats moored along the river bank.Gold Seekers

A year later, however, the great rush came to an end, the population of Dawson began to dwindle and the Klondike workings were left to people and companies with sufficient money to use machines for mining gold.  By 1910 most of the people had left, and nowadays Dawson has only a few hundred inhabitants.

Many years before the Klondike venture took place, Brazil was the scene of a gold rush.  The first attempts were made at the end of the 17th century in what is now the state of Minas Gerais.  Adventurers continued to go into the almost unknown heart of this country until the 19th century, and helped to build up the prosperity and population of modern Brazil. 

During the 19th century various gold rushes followed one after the other in the remote wilds of Siberia.  They opened up parts of this desolate country but left no towns behind them when the gold was exhausted.

In 1799 an American boy, Conrad Reed, went for a walk one day in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, United States, and came across a shining nugget of gold.  A small but active gold-mining industry flourished for some 25 years after this, and gold was found in various other parts of the Appalachian Mountains.

In 1848 gold was discovered in California, United States, and this led to one of the most sensational of the world’s gold rushes.  Many of the inhabitants of San Francisco went after the gold, and people flocked into the ‘Golden State’ as California was called, even from beyond the seas.  Many died of starvation or disease because they lived in badly overcrowded conditions.  The most famous year, 1849, is remembered in the song ‘Clementine’, and the miners of that year were called ‘forty-niners’.

In 1858 gold was discovered on the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada, and there was another great rush of miners.

An Australian who had taken part in the Californian gold rush, Edward Hammond Hargraves, returned to Australia and in 1851 found gold in a creek near Bathurst, New South Wales.  He and two youths explored stretches of the Macquarie River and found gold there and in other parts of the colony.  At last Hargraves reported his finds to the government of New South Wales, and Australia’s first gold rush followed.  The area around Ballarat and Bendigo, in the neighbouring colony of Victoria, had richer stores of gold, however, and the search soon spread there.  During the next 40 years the rush for gold went through Queensland, Western Australia and several other parts of Australia.

In South Africa gold was found in the Transvaal in the early 1880’s and the South African gold mines, spread around the city of Johannesburg, are still among the worlds richest.

The period of gold rushes was over by the end of the 19th century, and the rough workings of the early miners have been replaced by the machinery of large companies.

Gold Mining

Most metals are so closely combined with the ore (rock or earth) containing them that they can be obtained only by smelting (heating) the ore, but gold is found as an actual metal either in the form of grains in the bed of a river or where a river has flowed in the past.  In this form, called alluvial or placer gold, the metal is separated by washing away the lighter sand or gravel with water.  It can be done with a frying pan, which is filled about one-third full of the sand and topped up with water, and then swirled and tilted so that the sand is washed over the edge while the grains of gold collect at the bottom.  This ‘panning’ for gold is crude and wasteful and more complicated ways of washing out the sand have been developed but they work on the same principal.  Sometimes quite large lumps of gold called nuggets are found in alluvial workings.  The biggest one found was the ‘Welcome Stranger’ nugget of 173 pounds found in Victoria, Australia in 1869.  It was discovered in a rut made by cart tracks only a few inches below the surface near Dunolly.

Most gold however, is found in lodes or veins in rocks.  To obtain the gold the rock must be crushed and in the old days this was done with hammers after which the powder was washed with water to separate the gold.  However, it was difficult to prevent the smallest grains of gold from being swept away with the water, so it was allowed to trickle over sheep skins in which the grains of gold became entangled.  This ancient practice probably gave rise to the legend of the Golden Fleece.

In modern gold mines, the rock is first broken out by blasting with explosives and then crushed in steel boxes by heavy stamps worked by machinery.  Water is fed into the boxes and turns the powdered rock into pulp which is led off in channels.  Blankets may be used to separate the larger gold particles from the pulp, but most of the gold is collected by chemical methods.  One way is to allow the pulp to flow over metal sheets coated with mercury.  The mercury dissolves the gold to form a paste called an amalgam which is removed and heated until the mercury boils off leaving the gold behind.  Another way of collecting the gold, called the cyanide process is far more often used.  In this, the pulp of powdered rock and water is put into tanks with a weak mixture of sodium cyanide, a chemical which dissolves gold.  The mixture is then filtered and zinc is added to it whereupon the gold settles out as a fine mud while the zinc is dissolved.  The gold is then cleaned with acid and melted into crude bullion, but it is still impure and must be refined to purify it.  This is done either by an electrical method called electrolysis or by treating the molten gold with chlorine gas which causes the impurities to collect in a crust on the surface.

Making Use of Gold

Pure gold is too soft to be used and has to be alloyed or mixed with copper or silver or both to harden it.  This alloy is made by mixing together the metals in a molten state.  Sovereigns are made of 22 parts gold to 2 parts copper but the gold used in jewellery and ornaments is reckoned in carats using a scale of 24 parts.  Thus pure gold is called 24-carat gold while 18 carat gold contains 18 parts gold to 6 parts copper and silver.  The gold used for crowning teeth is usually at least 20 carat otherwise it would stain.  The purer the gold the less liable it is to stain.  Alloys of gold containing copper are darker than pure gold and those containing silver are lighter in colour.

Gold will dissolve in a mixture of three parts of strong hydrochloric acid and one part of string nitric acid.  This mixture is called ‘aqua regia’ meaning ‘royal water’.  However gold is not attacked or eaten away by single acids and this fact can be used as ‘the acid test’ to tell whether a piece of jewellery is pure gold or not. 

As well as being used for coins, jewellery and ornaments gold or alloys of gold are used for fountain-pen nibs, spectacle frames, dentistry, some kinds of electrical contacts and wires and sometimes for crucibles (melting pots) in laboratories.  When used for decorating pottery and glass for sign writing it is usually in the form of gold leaf.  This is made by rolling gold into thin plates about the size of a postage stamp and wrapping each plate in skin from the insides of an ox and then hammering it on a hard block to make it thinner and thinner.  In the finished state the gold leaf is so thin that 1,000 sheets pressed together would not be as thick as a sheet of paper.  Gold leaf is stuck to the article to be ornamented with a gum called gold size.  Liquid gold is a chemical mixture of gold dissolved in other substances which is sprayed or painted onto the article to be decorated.  The article is then heated and the other substances burn away leaving a very thin film of bright gold.

Gold and Silverware

Man has been making beautiful and precious things out of gold and silver since he first discovered these metals thousands of years ago.  Gold and silver are naturally beautiful and they are also easy for the skilled craftsmen to work into shape.  Gold was almost certainly the first metal to be discovered and used by early man.  He found it as it is still often found among the sands of rivers in the form of small grains and sometimes in epics as big as a hen’s egg.  Silver too is sometimes found in its natural state as a crystal mass often weighing several hundred pounds, but it is most often obtained today by smelting from ores.  The work of silver and gold is one of the most ancient of all man’s arts.

There are now far fewer craftsmen going gold and silver work in Britain than there were at various times in the past such as the 18th century.  The Goldsmiths’ Company of London which has existed for over 500 years tries to encourage the use of fine gold and silverware for ceremonial occasions.  Among these are the swords of honour that the City of London presented to those who were chiefs of staff of the armed forces during World War II.

The art of schools and colleges of Birmingham, London and Sheffield train young men and women to make beautiful gold and silver work by exactly the same hand methods as those used centuries ago.  They are trained to work in this way because, even though many things today can be produced fairly quickly and efficiently by machines in factories, no machine can replace the craftsman’s imagination and the skill of his hand as he designs and makes a beautiful object.  His skill is not very different now from that of craftsmen of ancient Egypt more than 7000 years ago.

The early finders of gold must have liked its colour and shine and wanted to wear it as jewellery.  They made necklets and anklets by tying the grains of gold together with thin strips of leather or thread of some sort.  Even some of the flints and other tools of the Stone Age were covered with thin gold upon which the artist had carved figures and animals.  Later on men learnt how to work the metal into various forms both for decoration and for use and also how to melt it down and set it into shape moulds.

As the different civilisations of the ancient world grew up skill in working gold and silver grew up too.  In ancient Egypt gold and silver vessels were very common and some were made as early as 5500 BC.  Beautiful gold jewellery and other objects were placed in the bodies of kings in the royal tombs.  The Hebrew people also used gold and silver for cups, bowls, candlesticks and images, as the Old Testament tells.

Much later in England the goldsmiths of the Anglo-Saxons were famous for their work.  Some of their wonderful treasures were discovered in 1939 in a burial ship at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.  These early gold workers only had rough simple tools to work with and probably just an open charcoal fire to provide the heat that is necessary for the processes of purifying and shaping metal.

The British Museum in London which displays the Sutton Hoo treasures is also the home of some lovely examples of ancient skill in gold and silver from many peoples and periods in the world’s early history.  Many of the gold pieces look as fresh and beautiful as when they were first made because gold is not affected by being buried in earth even for thousands of years.

Silver objects on the other hand often perish and fall to pieces after they have been buried for a long time because of the effect of acid in the earth and so very old silver objects are not nearly so common as the gold pieces.  Nevertheless, a wonderful collection of Roman table silver has been unearthed at Mildenhall in Suffolk; it has survived almost unharmed for 16 centuries since it was buried during the last years of Roman rule in Britain, because of the sandy nature of the soil in the Fen district appears to be free from these damaging acids.  It is called the Mildenhall treasure and it too can be seen in the British Museum.

Unfortunately, a great deal of work that English goldsmiths and silversmiths made during the middle ages has not come down to us today.  This is because a great many pieces of gold and silver were melted down to pay for the wars of kings and nobles.  During these times the church was very powerful and very rich and many of the most important and precious gold and silver objects were made for the church’s use.  Among them were crosses and candlesticks, crosiers (the staffs carried by Bishops), the cups and chalices which are special cups used in the services of Mass and Holy Communion.  All of these were beautifully adorned and of course very valuable.  Preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is one of the few very early pieces which remain.  It is the ‘Gloucester Candlestick’ so called because inscriptions on it show that it was given by Abbot Peter to the Abbey Church of St Peter at Gloucester in about 1104.  This candlestick which is 23 inches high is made in gilt bronze by a method known as lost wax casting, this is a method of casting bronze figures and ornaments by first making a model in wax and enclosing it in plaster, then melting out the wax using the hollow plaster as a mould for the bronze.  Among some fine articles made in the 14th century are a silver cup decorated with enamel belonging to the Corporation of King’s Lynn in Norfolk and the ‘Royal Gold Cup’ in the British Museum.  Both these cups are fine examples of a method of enamelling known as bassetaille which consists in carving and modelling the body of the vessel and covering the carving with beautiful transparent enamel colours through which the carving shows.

During these middle ages, goldsmiths in England formed themselves into groups called guilds to protect each other and to help their craft to grow and prosper.  There was a guild of goldsmiths (this term included silver workers as well) in London as long ago as 1180 and there were other guilds in York, Exeter, Chester and Norwich.  One of the most important things the guilds did was to make sure that the wares their members made were up to standard by testing (or assaying) the metal.  In the year 1300 Edward I granted the right of assaying to the Goldsmiths’ Company of London, on condition that when the company had tested a vessel they stamped it at Goldsmiths Hall with a small mark in the shape of a Leopard’s head before selling it.  Ever since 1363 this marking, known as hallmarking, has been compulsory for all gold and silver articles made in England.

When Henry VIII put an end to the monasteries he also put an end to the great power, wealth and influence of the church in England and this made a great difference to the design of gold and silver plate.  English goldsmiths and silversmiths began to make objects that had nothing to do with the church and all sorts of new and different designs came to be used.  The articles that offered new opportunities for work in the precious metals were things like salt cellars, flagons, tankards and cups for people to use in their homes.

Wonderful goldsmiths and silversmiths became known in several of the countries of Europe and kings, princes and wealthy nobles were happy to pay for their work.  The most famous of all these goldsmiths was the Italian Benvenuto Cellini who lived from 1500 to 1571.  Among the people for whom he worked were the Pope and some of his cardinals as well as King Francis I of France.  It was for this king that Cellini made the magnificent salt cellar which of all his works in gold is the most famous that still exists.  On its cover are two golden figures representing the sea and the earth, Neptune, God of the sea, carries his trident and is supported by sea horses with fishes’ tails.  Cellini’s salt cellar is now in the Museum of Vienna.

The time of the best English craftsmanship came later in the silver work of the late 17th and 18th centuries.  Silver was by then used a great deal in the houses of rich people.  It was an age of elegance and prosperity and the silversmith was kept fully occupied in meeting all the demands of his wealthy customers.  Tea, coffee and chocolate began to be drunk which meant that all sorts of new objects likes pots and jugs were required.  The silversmiths quickly turned their minds and hands to making some of the finest silverware ever known to England for use in people’s houses.

The banqueting tables of the rich and famous in those days were a splendid sight.  The glittering mass of table silver glowing softly in the light of huge chandeliers in magnificent rooms with powdered and bewigged ladies and gentlemen adding colour and splendour to the scene.  Tea caddies, kettles to be used with spirit lamps, tea and coffee pots, punch bowls and wine cisterns, ornamental centrepieces for tables, tureens, salvers and dishes of all kinds were made in great numbers and made very beautifully.

Many of these pieces of silver can be seen today in the national museums and some are still being used for the same purposes for which they were made in the great age of silverware 200 years ago.  In the 19th century so many new machines came into use that the art of making things by hand was almost forgotten, but today craftsmen are working again and the often look to fine works of the past for their inspiration.

 

 

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