Old gold

It’s estimated that 95% of all the gold ever mined is still around.

Pieces of natural gold have been discovered in Spanish caves that date back to 40,000 BCE, but it wasn’t until 3600 BCE that the metal began to be smelted by Egyptian goldsmiths.

Around 2600 BCE, the ancient Mesopotamians were making the first gold jewellery. In 1223 BCE, Tutankhamen’s tomb (now thought by one Egyptologist to have been constructed for Queen Nefertiti) was adorned with gold and so, according to legend, was Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and atomic number 79, making it one of the higher atomic number elements that occur naturally. In its purest form, it is a bright, slightly reddish yellow, dense, malleable metal. It is naturally solid and occurs as nuggets or grains, in rocks, in veins, and in alluvial deposits.

Conjuring gold from a more common element, such as lead, was the aim of alchemists such as Nicolas Flamel (who supposedly discovered the Philosopher’s Stone) and Albertus Magnus (credited with the discovery of the element arsenic and who experimented with photosensitive chemicals such as silver nitrate).

The transmutation of gold only became possible with nuclear physics in the 20th century. It was first synthesised from mercury in 1924 by Japanese physicist Hantaro Nagaoka. An American team, ignorant of Nagaoka’s earlier study, achieved the same result in 1941.

In early Christian art, gold represents the radiance of God. In the Middle Ages, gold leaf was used for altarpieces and religious figures and during the Renaissance it became a symbol of power and status. Benvenuto Cellini’s Salt Cellar (completed in 1543 for Francis I of France and currently in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum) is one of the world’s Renaissance masterpieces. Stolen in 2003 and recovered undamaged in 2006, it is valued at over ₤40 million.

In the early 20th century, the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt used gold leaf in his paintings of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Judith, Danaë, and famously The Kiss, rendering them exotic and otherworldly.

But the greatest alchemist and artist of all is nature, when in the cool of autumn green chlorophyll is broken down to form orange-yellow pigments that in sunlight become citron, jonquil, amber, saffron, and old gold.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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