Precious Metals and Ancient Civilizations

Since time immemorial, Gold and Silver have been precious commodities. Humankind’s fascination with Gold reaches far beyond recorded history. Modern historians and scientists cannot discern precisely when human’s first discovered the existence of either Gold or Silver, but researchers have uncovered flakes of Gold in Paleolithic caves from as much as 40,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence generally suggests that all humans who found or saw Gold were enthralled by it. Since there are Gold deposits all over the world, many different civilizations likely discovered it around the same era and its status as a coveted item blossomed around the globe.

Gold has been mentioned throughout ancient historical texts. There is evidence of a Gold-to- Silver ratio dating back to 3100 B.C. In the code of Menes, the founder of the first Egyptian dynasty, it specifies that "one part of Gold is equal to two and one half parts of Silver…" This is our earliest known recording of a value relationship between Gold and Silver. Homer wrote of Gold in The Iliad and The Odyssey, calling Gold “the glory of the immortals and a sign of wealth among ordinary humans.” The most famous written work in the Western world is the Bible, and it makes mention of Gold and Silver many, many times.

Contemporary humans still prize Gold and Silver as the two most common Precious Metals used for jewelry and personal adornment. The urge to adorn the body is so very primitive that birds will tuck found feathers and bits of paper among their own plumage to be more flamboyant. Experts believe many civilizations made bodily adornment from Precious Metals before the dawn of recorded history, too. The earliest known examples of Gold and Silver jewelry for personal adornment are found in Assyrian and Mesopotamian civilizations.

Because Gold does not tarnish, ancient civilizations are believed to have considered Gold more than a Precious Metal. It was afforded a magical status due to its mysterious properties not understood by ancient peoples. The idea that Gold, specifically, possesses properties beyond the capacity for human understanding would continue into the Age of Enlightenment.

The Mesopotamians and Assyrians certainly used Gold to create jewelry and personal items. Concurrently, they also incorporated Gold into sacred objects, likely due to its beauty combined with what seemed like magical resistance to tarnish. Today, only fragments of ritual cups, daggers and sacred adornments believed to be used by holy men remain. The use of Precious Metals for sacred items persisted into later civilizations—most famously, ancient Egypt.

No civilization is as well known for its use of Precious Metals than the ancient Egyptian culture. The image that appears in your modern mind when you think of ancient Egypt is likely a golden face with kohl-rimmed eyes. Alongside its sister civilization in Sumer, Egypt earned renown in the ancient world for its mastery of working with Precious Metals, especially Gold. We can witness this mastery today as it is thoroughly evidenced in funereal objects and sacred items, gilded furniture and artwork, and sumptuous jewelry including fantastic gems. In the mind of the ancient Egyptians, Gold and Silver were perfect for revering their god, Ra, and the goddess Bast. Egyptian worship of the sun and moon and the gods that represented them meant that shining yellow Gold and lustrous white Silver were assigned mystical properties representing those gods.

Egyptians were also famous for creating gorgeous and plentiful Silver jewelry and personal items, such as rings, earrings, bracelets and amulets. Both Silver and Gold played a part in the superstitions and beliefs of ancient Egypt, as they believed that specific metals could provide protection unto the wearer. When the Precious Metals were accompanied by certain stones—jet, amber and turquoise were popular—the resulting jewelry was believed to protect the wearer from evil spirits. This belief was so deeply held that jewelry and objects with these properties was often included in mummies’ wrappings to help the deceased on their journey through the Underworld.

The most breathtaking examples of Egyptian artistry in Gold is seen in the belongings of Egyptian royalty. The Gold metalwork displayed in the trappings of royalty represents the state of art as well as the standard of perfection for their time. Their mastery of Precious Metals would remain unrivalled for centuries, even after their empire fell. Ancient Egyptians’ use of Gold and Silver was a huge part of both their life and their death. For them, Precious Metals were more than valuable commodities; they were part of a deep and meaningful culture of art and faith that transfixes both historians and laymen to this day.

Gold and Silver often defined the culture of ancient civilizations through its use in the personal lives, deaths and worship of its members. Without the applications of Precious Metals developed by ancient man, we can only wonder what our modern relationship with Gold and Silver might be.

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