Why this ancient civilization fell in love with gold for 700 years | Science


A fifth century BCE tiara or headband, from Colchis, in the southern Caucasus.
Steve Batiuk, ASOR photo collection under CC BY-SA 4.0

Four thousand years ago, the most beautiful gold objects on Earth belonged to the nomadic groups who roamed the mountainous lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. These communities raised animals for a living, but they also mastered working with gold long before most societies. Their elites displayed this bling, especially in their graves, which were laden with gold goblets, jewelry, and other treasures. Word of this land rich in gold spread and spawned great stories from distant lands, such as the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In most versions of the legend, the hero and his crew brave a perilous journey to retrieve the golden wool of a magical ram from Colchis, what is today the land of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains.

But, according to a new study published in Scientific reports, gold went out of fashion in the Caucasus and remained unpopular for at least 700 years. Analyzing more than 4,500 artefacts discovered by archaeologists over the past 130 years, a researcher has shown that gold objects became scarce over much of the land between 1500 and 800 BCE. The inhabitants then seem to have decided that the gold was flashy.

“This document is important… because it reminds us that our values ​​are not universal. Even something that we tend to think of as a global commodity – ie gold, the lure of gold – is not universal in space and time, ”explains the professor. of Cambridge Marcos Martinón-Torres, an ancient metals expert who was not involved in the research.

And this change may reflect more than the whims of fashion. The archaeologist behind the research, Nathaniel Erb-Satullo of Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, believes that the decline of gold is due to the loss of status of the elites. Perhaps average people have decried the one percent of their day, and ostentatious markers of wealth, like gold ornaments, have gone out of fashion. Down with the rich and their wealth.

“I’m not saying it was a totally flat social hierarchy,” says Erb-Satullo. But he sees a “diversion from the glorification of the individual person”.

Gold Cup

Goblet from a tumulus dating from the 2nd millennium BC

Steve Batiuk, ASOR photo collection under CC BY-SA 4.0

Erb-Satullo’s study began as a casual observation. In the mid-2010s, while working on archaeological excavations in Georgia, he visited regional museums in his spare time. He was speechless at their collections of exquisite gold objects, but began to notice a gap in the age of these objects. The exhibits featured “beautiful, primitive gold,” mostly made between 2500 and 1500 BCE, during the Middle Bronze Age. They also exhibited relics from 800 to 200 BCE, when the classical Greeks explored the area and concocted the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. But Erb-Satullo rarely spied on artifacts from the Intermediate Period, 1500 to 800 BCE, during the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age.

While chatting with Georgian colleagues, he learned that others had casually noted this apparent golden hole, but that no one had seriously investigated it. Maybe goldsmiths do making gold in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, but archaeologists have yet to find the sites where it is buried. However, Erb-Satullo was puzzled by an alternate explanation: Communities in the Caucasus may have lost their thirst for gold for nearly 1,000 years.

To determine if the apparent gap meant a real drop in gold working, he decided to create a database of all known gold artifacts from the South Caucasus, which date between 4000 and 500 BCE. In 2019, he began to browse the published reports of archaeological excavations that took place in present-day Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan, from the late 1800s. By the end of 2020, his base The data included 89 sites and 4,555 gold objects, including cups, figurines, beads and gold leaf fragments, which likely covered wooden objects that decayed long ago. Erb-Satullo mapped how these artifact counts varied over time, by geographic area, and by a site’s distance from gold ore deposits.

His occasional observation that Georgian museums rarely had gold objects between 1500 and 800 BCE reflected a real decline in gold working during this period. Specifically, the decline occurred in the so-called Middle Kura area, the northeast corner of the region. The Middle Kura sites, dated between 2500 and 1500 BCE, yielded a whopping 1,209 gold objects. But the tally dropped to just 29 objects during the following period, from 1500 to 800 BCE. This despite the fact that archaeologists have excavated thousands of graves from this latter period. These burials contained beautiful objects, made from bronze, carnelian and other precious materials. Gold was simply remarkably scarce. Meanwhile, gold grades have remained high at sites outside of this area to the south. These communities continued to wrap their graves with golden splendor, while the Middle Kura groups avoided metal.

The study “gathered tons of data to really demonstrate that some people in this particular field actually choose not to engage or reject previous technology,” says Catherine Frieman, an archaeologist at Australian National University, who served as a peer reviewer for the study.

It is unclear why these communities rejected the shiny metal, adopted by their predecessors, contemporary neighbors and local successors. They left no written record explaining this turning point – writing did not yet exist in the Caucasus region.

But Erb-Satullo gleaned clues from other archaeological remains, which point to social transformations during the Bronze and Iron Ages. When gold mining peaked between 2500 and 1500 BCE, evidence of permanent settlements in the South Caucasus was scarce. Most of the communities appear to have been nomadic pastoralists. Some members of these groups apparently achieved high status and wealth, depending on the size and content of their graves, located in constructed mounds that could span a football field in diameter and reach 9 meters high.

These nomadic elites “were definitely decked out in riches,” says Erb-Satullo. It is “when these enormous mounds appear that we begin to see the emergence of the first real type of social hierarchy”.

But around 1500 BCE, lifestyles and preferences changed. More groups settled in villages, often protected by hilltop fortresses. The graves have become more modest, compared to the huge mounds of previous generations. And the gold bling has almost disappeared in the Middle Kura area.

Craftsmen are unlikely to have exhausted their natural reserves of gold. The southern Caucasus has more than 100 known gold deposits. Almost all of the archaeological sites in the study were within a two-day walk of one or more of these sources, based on Erb-Satullo’s estimates of travel time on foot through the rugged terrain. In addition, prolific and sophisticated gold mining reappeared in the Middle Kura area towards the end of the first millennium BCE. There is no indication that the region has experienced a gold shortage.

Together, these clues suggest that the upper class has reduced its most glaring manifestations of wealth. The social hierarchy may have leveled out somewhat. Or, maybe the high ranking people just stopped flaunting their wealth. Regardless, the social turn against gold was unique to the people of Middle Kura. Groups outside this area continued to bury their dead with gold bling.

Beyond the Caucasus, the study provides insight into the global history of technology and innovations, such as metalworking. It provides a rare example, in which a company decided to abandon a technology that it had developed and adopted centuries before. The reason why such cases are rare: “It is difficult to study the rejection of innovations. It is difficult to study people who are not doing things because, by definition, the evidence isn’t there, ”says Frieman.

When researchers focus only on successful innovations, they give the impression that technology invariably advances in a linear progression from simple to complex, from sticks and stones to iPhones. But 3,500 years ago, in the Caucasus, communities decided to abandon the (then) high-tech industry of gold mining.

According to Martinón-Torres, their choice shows that “the history of technology is not even linear. It is much richer and much more colorful, with ebbs and flows that vary according to the social and cultural context of individuals.