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Enthusiast’s Guide to the History of Gold

  • By Julia Littlewood
  • Published 04/9/2012

Since the dawn of civilisation gold has been highly prized – for use in jewellery, trade and even food, this precious metal is one of the most valuable substances produced by our planet.

The following guide will explore some of the most interesting high points in the history of gold throughout the ages.

Origins – Gold in the Copper & Bronze Age

Gold has been known and used by artisans since the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, as seen in archaeological finds in the Balkans dating from as far back as the 4th millennium BC. Gold artefacts have also been discovered in Central Europe from the 2nd millennium BC or Bronze Age.

Gold in Egypt

From as early as 2600 BC, Egyptian hieroglyphs describe the use of gold. King Tushratta, who reigned in Egypt during the late 14th century BC, described this precious metal as being “more plentiful than dirt”. Egypt and especially Nubia had advanced gold-producing resources compared to other civilisations at the time, which saw them dominate the industry. In fact the earliest known map, called the Turin Papyrus Map, shows the plan of a gold mine in Nubia.

Large mines were also present across the Red Sea, in what is now called Saudi Arabia. In addition, the south-east corner of the Black Sea was famed for its gold – the world’s earliest coinage (made of gold) was made in Lydia around 610 BC.

Gold in Rome

Roman metallurgy gave rise to new methods for extracting gold on a larger scale using hydraulic mining methods, especially in Hispania (Iberian Peninsula) from 25 BC onwards and in Dacia (south of Italy near the Danube River) from 106 AD onwards. One of their largest mines was located at a place called Las Medulas (in what is currently Spain), where they built seven long aqueducts to process a large alluvial deposit. The Romans also exploited smaller deposits in Britain, such as the deposits at Dolaucothi.

Gold in Africa

Around the 1300’s the Mali Empire in Africa was known throughout the old world for its immense quantities of gold. When their ruler Mansa Musa made his famous Hajj to Mecca in 1324 and passed through Cairo, it was said he gave away so much gold that it depressed the gold price in Egypt for over a decade.

Gold in the Americas and Europe

The initial European exploration of the Americas was greatly fuelled by reports of the opulent gold ornaments displayed in great volume by the indigenous Native American peoples, particularly in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The Aztecs literally regarded gold as the product of the gods, even calling it “god excrement”.

Strangely however, the ancient native peoples of North America considered gold to be useless, preferring instead the more practical minerals such as obsidian, flint and slate.

Gold Booms in Modern Times

While gold in antiquity was readily found, the methods to extract and process it only developed much later as civilisations advanced – up to 75% of all gold ever produced has only been extracted since 1910.

During the 19th century, intense gold rushes occurred whenever large deposits were discovered, and this influx of people often gave rise to towns which still stand today. The first documented discovery of gold in the United States was at the Reed Gold Mine near Georgeville, North Carolina in 1803, while the first major American gold strike happened in a small Georgia town called Dahlonega. Further gold rushes occurred in California, Colorado, the Black Hills, as well as globally in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada.

Mining gold in this day and age often involves monumental feats of engineering involving pits so large they can be seen from outer space and shafts that span nearly two and a half miles below the surface of the earth with a transport time of two hours just for miners to get to their work stations.

Currently, the world’s ten most prolific gold fields are the Witwatersrand Basin (Johannesburg, South Africa), Carlin Trend (Nevada, US), Irian Jaya (Indonesia), The Super Pit (Kalgoorlie, Australia), Yanacocha (Peru), Gold Country (California, US), Homestake Mine (South Dakota, US), Lihir Island (Papa New Guinea), Dawson City (Yukon Territory, Canada) and the Hishikari Mine (Japan) .


Much of the gold mined throughout history is still in circulation, even if it has been melted down for new uses. While this precious metal in contemporary times is even used in the manufacture of electronics, without a doubt its most treasured form for the average person is in gold jewellery – these days there is simply no end to the stunning designs we can choose from, especially online.

About the Author: Julia Littlewood is a stylist and gold jewellery enthusiast.



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