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Historical notes on gold

Of all elements, gold has been the most revered by man since the earliest times. The desire for gold has markedly influenced his history and was a deciding factor in the development of chemistry. The cry 'gold' has lured men across oceans and continents, over the highest mountain peaks, into the Arctic tundras, into scorching deserts and through impenetrable jungles. Its gleam prompted the expeditions and conquests of Jason of Thessaly, Cyrus and Darius of Persia, Alexander of Greece, Caesar of Rome, Columbus of Genoa, Cortez and Pizzarro of Spain, Raleigh of England and many others down through history. According to Pliny the Elder in Historia naturalis (79 A.D.), the gold is the first of man's follies and the silver is second. To make gold from baser metals was a major preoccupation of the alchemists as was also their ceaseless efforts to discover the elixir of life and the fountain of youth. In fact, the alchemists considered that they had indeed discovered the fountain of youth in the potable gold made by solution of the metal in aqua regia followed by treatment with ethereal oils. Roger Bacon certainly thought so for in urging the elixir "aurum potable, oleum auri, quinta essentia auri" on Pope Nicholas IV he related.

"An old man, when ploughing a field in Sicily, one day found some of the yellow potable gold in a golden phial, and, supposing it to be dew, drank up the liquor. He was thereupon transformed into a hale, robust, and accomplished youth. The youth was thereafter received into the service of the Sicilian king, where he served some eighty years."

A thousand and more years of alchemy and innumerable experiments to make gold by concocting mixtures and potions of every conceivable type gave us the basis of modern chemistry. We can truly conclude with Francis Bacon.

"Surely to alchemy this right is due, that it may be compared to the husbandman whereof Aesop makes the fable; that, when he died, told his sons that he had left unto them gold buried in his vineyard; and they digged all over the ground, and gold they found none; but by reason of their stirring and digging the mould about the roots of their vines, they had a great vintage the year following: so assuredly the search and stir to make gold hath brought to light a great number of good and fruitful inventions and experiments."

Cadmus, the Phoenician, is said by some early writers to have discovered gold, but this is surely legend. Others say that Thoas first found it in the Pangaeus Mountains in Thrace. The Chronicum Alexandrinum ascribes its discovery to Mercury, the son of Jupiter, or to Pisus, king of Italy, who quitting his own country went into Egypt. In actual fact the discovery of the element we call gold is lost in antiquity. Reference to the metal can be found in most of the ancient Hindu, Chinese and Hebrew manuscripts, and in some, such as the Old Testament, it is the first metal mentioned. Gold beads, gold-hafted flint knives, stone jars with gold-covered mouths, gold ornaments, gold jewellery and various golden decorations have been found in the excavations of the most ancient civilizations, in the Neolithic monuments of France, in the Celtic graves of Europe, among the Sumerian relics of Ur, in predynastic monuments and graves of Egypt and among the very ancient remains of Minoan Crete, India and China. The tombs of the Pharaohs, especially that of Tutankhamen (c.1371-c.1352 B.C.), contained many beautifully executed gold pieces, and representations of quartz-crushing and gold-refining processes dating back to at least 1350 B.C. have been reported from these tombs. In the Code of Menes, who reigned in Egypt about 3500 B.C., it was decreed, "one part of gold is equal to two and one-half parts of silver in value." By 1000 B.C. both gold and silver were probably in widespread use as coinage metals in all countries between the Indus and the Nile. Other uses for gold mentioned in old manuscripts from various civilizations include the fabrication of idols, shrines, altars, bowls, vases, flasks, drinking cups, funeral face masks, sarcophagi, mummy cases and ornamental weapons. The art and trade of the goldsmith and minter have, therefore, come down to us from antiquity.

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Rafal Swiecki, geological engineer email contact

This document is in the public domain.

March, 2011