Making Traditions – Gold in Our Culture

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Gold has long had the power to captivate, from ancient civilisation to the modern day. Highly valued as currency and used as decoration for around 6,000 years, gold has also inspired countless books, poems, works of art and fairy tales. It is crucial in technology, aerospace and medicine but why is gold so alluring?

Firstly, it’s an extremely practical metal to work with – it doesn’t corrode, it’s malleable and it can be hammered very thinly – and, of course, its radiant yellow colour renders gold beautiful to view. Treasured for its representation of the sun, gold in Latin is ‘aurum’ and Aurora was the Roman goddess of dawn. Gold is also relatively rare. Approximately 200,000 tonnes of gold have been mined to date, which is the equivalent of a cube of just 21 metres squared. There are thought to be around 50,000 tonnes still below ground, which equals a fifth of the world’s reserves.

Smelted from 3,600 BC in Egypt, gold was also mined in ancient China, South America and Africa. Early mining methods involved washing sediment from rivers and streams to separate gold deposits from crushed rock. The word ‘carat’ is thought to come from the Arabic for ‘seed of the locust bean tree’, as the seeds are similar in size and weight and were used by Arabic and African traders to weigh gold and other objects.

Long before it was used as money, gold was made into jewellery. Amongst the earliest known makers was the Sumer civilisation of southern Iraq, who wore gold in around 3,000 BC. People of this time also believed that gold and precious stones could help them pass safely into the afterlife.

In the 1920s, excavations of the ancient Sumer city of Ur revealed the riches of the royal tombs. Each had several rooms, containing carved and decorated vessels of gold, silver and lapis lazuli, as well as jewellery and personal belongings. The tombs were the burial site for Queen Puabi and, astonishingly, dozens of attendants, who are thought to have poisoned themselves to accompany Puabi on her journey.

In the United Kingdom, the earliest known gold objects date from around 2,300 BC and belonged to the ‘Amesbury Archer,’ a man aged between 35 and 45 who came from the Continent. Discovered amongst his burial treasures were several small, basket-shaped gold ornaments, which at first were thought to be earrings but are more likely to be hair accessories. One of the greatest hoards of gold came from the Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo, which was found to contain intricate gold and garnet shoulder clasps, the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet and 37 gold coins.

Gold was first used as coinage in Lydia, Asia Minor, in around 600 BC. In southern England, gold coins were part of a monetary system before the Roman invasion, although their use was intermittent. Henry III attempted to introduce a gold penny in the thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until the reign of his great grandson, Edward III, that a regular gold coinage was established. By this time, gold coins were circulating on the Continent, and the link between weight and value was fixed.

Edward III’s initial coins were referred to as ‘leopards’ and their intricate design was a sharp contrast to that of the silver coins of the time. They were soon replaced with the noble coin and by the time of Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth, the noble, and coins representing fractions of it, would have been familiar to merchants and wealthy subjects. Nevertheless, Henry VII’s Sovereign, which was first minted in 1489, was remarkable for its size and craftsmanship.

Gold has played a major role in war for centuries and the promise of treasure has lured many into battle. By the end of the sixteenth century, Spain was the richest nation in the world and her ships were a target for attack. Even before the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Sir Francis Drake had become incredibly rich from ‘privateering’, which was, essentially, a form of pirating commissioned by the government. In 1579, he seized the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, which contained chests of coins and 80 pounds of gold.

By the early twentieth century, The Sovereign had a reputation as the ‘chief coin of the world’ but even this couldn’t save it from the impact of the First World War. With as much gold as possible needed to finance troops and build up reserves, the government appealed to the public to hand in their Sovereigns in return for new £1 and 10-shilling notes. By 1915, the coin was no longer part of British everyday life and by the end of the war, no Sovereigns were struck by The Royal Mint.

Gold was used in dentistry as long as 3,000 years ago! The Etruscans of ancient Italy used gold wire to hold in place substitute teeth, usually from cows or calves, when their own teeth fell out. In addition, the first book on dentistry was published in 1530 in Leipzig and recommended the use of gold leaf to fill cavities. Alloys containing gold and other noble metals, such as platinum, palladium, silver, copper and zinc, are still used in dentistry today.

In medicine, gold was sought by alchemists as an elixir in the first century BC and was used from the Middle Ages. Following clinical trials in the 1920s, it was used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, with a mild solution of gold cyanide being injected into a patient’s muscle. Today, gold nanoparticles are widely used in the diagnosis and treatment of some cancers and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, nanoparticles have also helped detect antibodies in rapid testing.

Sarah Sophia Banks

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All around us but often hidden from view, gold is a vital component in just about every electronic device we use. Durable, with excellent conductivity and free of corrosion, it can be found in gadgets such as smartphones, tablets, computers and household appliances such as washing machines and televisions.

Gold has long been used in architecture, from the breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar to Moscow’s Cathedral of the Assumption. Traditionally a statement of power and success, it is incorporated into design for practical reasons too. The Royal Bank Plaza in Toronto is coated with 77.7 kilos of gold reflective glass, which helps to keep the iconic towers cool in summer and to retain the heat during winter. This reflective ability is also what makes gold so valuable in space exploration. As a reflector of infrared light, gold is used to cover spacecraft with a thin polyester film, protecting astronauts and equipment from harmful radiation and stabilising the temperature. A very thin gold film also acts as a lubricant to protect moving parts, as organic lubricants would break down in space.

Today, The Royal Mint makes a fantastic range of gold bullion coins for investors and collectors. Classic designs, such as Britannia, have been reimagined, whilst masterpieces such as Una and the Lion and The Three Graces designs have been remastered and appear on large gold coins. With gold’s proven record as a trusted store of wealth for thousands of years, its place in our culture seems assured for many years to come.


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