Gold In the Ancient World
Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome left a rich legacy of golden treasures but after the fall of the Roman Empire, little gold was produced for almost a thousand years. This was changed by Columbus's discovery of America in 1492. Adventurers were encouraged by European monarchs to sail for the new continent in search of riches, which led to the Spanish conquests of the early sixteenth century when Cortes and Pizarro invaded Mexico and Peru respectively.
By the time of the Spanish invasions, Peruvian civilisation had thrived for centuries and had reached a high level of sophistication. Gold had been recovered from placer deposits in Andean rivers from as early as 1200BC. In a succession of civilisations beginning with that of the Chavin, the goldsmith's skill developed over 2,500 years to a magnificent climax during the Chimu Empire.
The Chavin artisans obtained their raw materials from panning. The gold was naturally very pure and enabled the ancient pre-Columbian craftsmen to progress quickly to discovering metallurgical techniques. The Chavin worked the gold by hammering it into fine sheets which could be cut with stone shears and then decorated by embossing. Between 500 BC and 500 AD, the Nazca society developed in southern Peru. Their goldsmiths continued to create pieces by hammering but they also discovered casting. The gold was melted and poured into a mould, usually ceramic, and then the article was finished by polishing and burnishing.
The Chimu Empire from 1150 to 1450 AD, developed from the northern Peruvian tribes, and is thought to have been exposed to Mexican influences. Chimu goldsmiths learned alloying and welding. This required a precise control over working temperatures and enabled them to create complex objects from several components. They learned the technique of lost wax casting, and the craft of filigree using metal threads produced by rolling wire under tension. They also developed plating using an alloy of 70% copper and 30% gold. This alloy was poured over an article and treated with acids obtained form plant juices. These produced a copper oxide which, when cleaned off, left a thin film of pure gold on the article. Gilding was also common, using thin gold sheeting or fusion.
When the Incas conquered the Chimy in the mid-fifteenth century, the Chimu goldsmiths' craft was held in esteem because the sun was a deity to the Inca and gold was considered to be "the sweat of the sun". The Inca capital was Cuzco, where the Temple of the Sun was one of the marvels of the time, with almost every inch of its walls covered in gold. The royal gardens were described as a dazzling combination of exotic plants and sculptures of animals, birds, trees and plants all made from silver and gold. In their efforts to provide more gold for the artisans, the Incas developed mining techniques beyond the simple excavations dug into the mountains by their predecessors.
Cortes reached Mexico in 1519. His weapons alarmed Emperor Montezuma of the Aztecs who, hoping to make friends with the newcomers, offered them priceless gifts of gold. But his attempts were futile and Cortes, not satisfied, advanced into the main settlement of the Aztecs, defeated Montezuma, and seized his vast gold treasure.
A few years later in 1531, Francisco Pizarro invaded Peru and captured the ruler of the Incas, Atahualpa. As ransom, the latter offered to fill the room in which he was imprisoned once with gold and twice with silver. Over the next four months nearly eight tonnes of gold were accumulated but, in return, Pizarro baptised Atahualpa, then promptly had him strangled in public. In order to ship the gold back to Spain, Pizarro had most of the beautiful artefacts melted down. South American plunder became Europe's prime source of gold and relatively few of the ancient treasures remain. However, at the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Colombia, more than 10,000 items of Pre-Columbian jewellery and ornaments are preserved, most of which have come from tombs.
Once the hoards of artefacts from the New World were exhausted, the supply of gold petered out. The conquerors had neither the skills nor the manpower to maintain the Inca mines or locate and exploit new ones. But the economy of Western Europe had been transformed, at the incalculable expense of almost three thousand years of cultural achievement and the destruction of an ancient civilisation.
Article courtesy of www.gold.org/