Rabu, 07 Maret 2012

Gold A Cultural Encyclopedia SHANNON L. VENABLE

As early as 2.5 billion years ago, thechemical element that constitutes gold in  its native form began to emergein volcanic and sedimentary rock in sources that  would later bediscovered by humans on every continent on Earth except Antarctica, in addition to the gold deposits found deep under the ocean floor.Evidence  for human exposure to gold dates from around 5000 BC, and it canbe said  that from this first encounter, humankind cherished gold as aprecious symbol  of wealth and majesty, thought to contain some aspect ofthe divine, or even to  hold the key to eternal life, because of itsunique physical properties and striking  beauty.
From antiquity to the presentday, gold has played a role in the course of  human history through itsinfluence in a wide variety of realms—spiritual, cultural,  political,scientific, and economic. Access to significant supplies of gold  can be creditedwith contributing to the rise of powerful states and empires,  whiledevaluation of gold currency or an outflow of gold from state or royaltreasuries  has contributed to the downfall of mighty rulers andgovernments, such  as those in ancient Rome,Byzantium, the SpanishEmpire, and Tudor England.  In the contemporary era, maintaining a goldsupply and monitoring the domestic  gold market remains a crucial toolutilized by policymakers in the realm of  global economic foreignrelations, as evidenced by the careful policies of China  since 2008 inimplementing financial reforms designed to maintain the strength  of theyuan in the face of a weak U.S. dollar. Pursuit of gold has been theforce  behind significant conquests, voyages of discovery and exploration,and imperial  expansion through colonization. Gold reinforced social andpolitical boundaries  by serving as a carefully regulated status symbol,restricted to only certain  social groups or castes, in cultures aroundthe world. Ancient alchemists and  religious leaders held that goldoffered direct access to god and constituted a  symbol of nature’sperfection that was also thought to have tangible healing or  life-givingproperties. Such beliefs contributed to the development of modern  science,with alchemy providing the foundations of the field of chemistry and ancient goldsmithing techniques offering engineers a range of formulas forpractical  scientific applications of gold in industrial and technologicaladvancements.  Gold’s purely aesthetic beauty contributed to magnificentfeats of art and architecture  from the shining halls of the pharaohs’palaces to the mosaics in the  Hagia Sophia and the opulence of Versailles. Whethercherished as a medium of  trusted monetary exchange or as a divine object,gold has captivated humankind for thousands of years.

The Formation of Gold and its Physical Properties
Goldis a noble metal identified on the Periodical Table of the Elements as thechemical  element Au based on the Romance etymology of the word “gold,”which derives  from the Latin word for gold— aurum. Gold is a uniqueelement because it exists most  commonly in its native form, notconsisting of any other minerals or elements. In this  form it appearswith a lustrous metallic gold color. Gold is highly resistant tooxidization  from exposure to oxygen or other substances, and thus is lesssusceptible to corrosion.  It is soft and pliable, yet extremely durableand dense. Gold is biocompatible  and has significant levels ofconductivity, while at the same time remaining chemically  inert. Each ofthese unique properties and attributes, along with the fact that gold is relatively rare when compared to available quantities of other metals,contributes to  gold’s historically high value as both a commodity and aform of money.  Geologists assert that gold formed over time in a varietyof ways. Scholars continue  to actively research and explore the originand placement of gold sources in various types of rock formations andenvironmental settings. Some of the most ancient  gold deposits occurred2.5 billion years ago in what are known as “greenstone  belts,” alongwhich geologists posit that a sizeable gold-forming event occurred in  themetamorphic rock when the earth’s plates collided amid volcanic and tectonic activity. The next phase in which supplies of gold formed in diverse types ofrock  occurred 1.5 billion years ago, and then again 400 million yearsago. No signifi cant  gold formation activity was thought to occurcontinuously or in the human era.  Scientists have identified a widevariety of ways gold potentially forms, principal  among these processesare formation through a process of magmatic hydrothermal  cooling systemsin which water heated by magma sources is propelled upward to  cooler rocklevels toward the surface, during which precious metals dissolve from  thesurrounding rock and then precipitate into lode ore sources, or as theproduct  of chemical reactions caused by the interaction of sulphuricvapors with diverse  aqueous substances. Over time, gold was uprooted outof lode ore sources in various types of rock and deposited in alluvial sourcesdue to weathering and water  fl ow. An understanding of the chronology andgeological origins and distribution  of mineral emplacements thatcontributed to the formation of gold over time, along  with studies ofweathering patterns and typical patterns in the formation of quartz veins, assists geologists in surveying areas for potential gold miningoperations and  in the development of more efficient, cost-effectivemethods for extracting gold.

A Human Element: Gold from Antiquity to the Present
Along with other advancements such as writingand agriculture, metalworking  techniques, especially those used to craftobjects in gold, are a hallmark of what  archeologists and anthropologistsidentify as “civilization.” In the study of ancient  societies, thequality and level of gold artifacts is often viewed as a reflection ofthe  sophistication of a culture’s social organization or religiouspractices, or as signifying  a more advanced ideology. The 1973 discoveryof a series of tombs filled with highly  skilled metal work dating fromthe fifth millennium BC in the Varnanecropolis,  along the lower DanubeRiver valley in present-day Bulgaria,represented one of the largest and most ancient assemblages of gold artifactsin human history, consisting of 3,000 pieces of gold distributed among 62 gravesites. The product of a civilization  identifi ed as Old Europe, theseartifacts revolutionized the way anthropologists  viewed early Europeansocieties previously thought to have consisted of simple, egalitarian social orders. Instead, the burials at the Varna necropolis signaled the existence of a stratifi ed society and the emergence of male social dominance, socialconditions  evident largely from the placement and scope of the goldobjects among the graves.  This early culture straddling the Neolithic andthe Bronze Ages appeared to have traded  copper, gold, precious stones, andother items as primitive forms of commodity  with other settlements in theregion, evidence of more advanced and wide-reaching  economic activity inwhich such valuables served as status symbols.  Gold artifacts excavatedfrom a burial complex dating from the third millennium  BC at the site ofthe Great Ziggurat of Ur, an ancient Sumerian civilization  located alongthe Euphrates River in present-day southern Iraq, reveal the development ofadvanced goldsmithing techniques such as filigree, lost-wax casting,  andgilding; as well as the function of gold in a hierarchical Bronze Age societyas  a symbol of royalty or nobility. Around the same period, these methodswere also  utilized among ancient pre-Colombian civilizations in thePeruvian highlands.  During the period from 1500 to 1200 BC, the palacesand tombs of the Egyptian  pharaohs were adorned with exquisite works ofgold as goldsmiths mastered a variety  of techniques and rulers took careto preserve Egypt’s access to gold mines  in Nubia and the trade routesthat brought gold and other precious commodities  considered essential forstrengthening the wealth and prestige of the Egyptian dynasties.  By 1000BC, gold was officially used as a form of monetary exchange in  China, and by the sixth century BC, King Croesusbegan to mint a form of official  gold coinage in the Anatolian kingdom of Lydia that helped to foster regionaltrade  relations and preserve the territory’s legendary wealth. The OldTestament contains  hundreds of references to gold and its uses in thekingdoms of Israel, Judah,  and surrounding states extending asfar as Africa from as early as ca. 1200 BC.In  the fourth century BC, the Macedonian king Alexander the Greatconquered the  gold-rich lands of Persia and the Near East in a campaignthat widened the power  and influence of Greek culture and filled westerncoffers with gold, setting off centuries  of expansion of Greek and,later, Roman civilizations, in which access to  gold sources in African,Near Eastern, eastern European, and Iberian mines was  an essential toolof foreign conquest and settlement and a critical strategy for the preservation of political power.
Throughoutantiquity in cultures around the globe, gold was considered precious  notonly as a means of wealth but also for a range of physical and spiritual properties ascribed to the lustrous metal, often viewed as a direct product ofthe  divine because of its beauty, durability, and apparent perfection.Beginning as early  as the Bronze Age, there is evidence for the emergenceof the deeply ancient protoscientific and occult practice of alchemy, a questto transmutate base metals such  as lead into gold. Ancient alchemicalwritings exist from the Mediterranean region,  the Near East, and Asia,and by classical antiquity, were concentrated among  Greek and Jewishscholars in Alexandria,where ancient Egyptian and Hermetic texts containing the keys and formulas tothe mystical tradition were housed in the  library. The prevalence ofalchemy across cultures reflects more common perceptions  of a connectionbetween gold and the divine as manifest in nature’s perfection.  Gold wasthus considered to possess the power to prolong or immortalize life  bytapping in to this spiritual connection, an ideology that parallels the veryevolution  and purpose of religious practices in human cultures. From theIncan perception  of gold as the “sweat of the sun” to Aristoteliantheories of the elements and  human life, gold’s purported spiritual andmystical attributes epitomized the very  aspirations of humanity toachieve life beyond the temporal world.
The economic, artistic, spiritual, andpolitical significance and value of gold  seemed to converge during lateantiquity and the early Middle Ages in a wide variety  of cultures—in therise of the Byzantine Empire, among the Celtic tribes of  northern Europeand Britain, the South Korean kingdom of Silla, and in the Chinese dynasties, to name only a few. Gold’s range of uses supported the fabricof  human life: in coronation ceremonies, it reinforced kingship and thepower of the  state; in religious rituals, it facilitated access to Godand the ascendancy of priestly  classes; it generated prestige andcommunicated religious and political ideologies  through art and architecture;it reinforced social hierarchies as an indication of  status; itcontributed to the expansion of literacy and the culture of the book in the illuminated manuscripts produced by scribes in early medieval scriptoria;it  perpetuated marriage and family ties as a predominant type of dowry;and it contributed  to the expansion of international trade and, in turn,global navigation and  exploration, as a transportable and widely acceptedform of monetary exchange.  During the medieval period, gold was anessential component of the formation  of the merchant republics andcity-states in Europe, in which the rise ofthe modern  state and the development of capitalist economies occurred.Advanced minting  practices guaranteed standardized systems of value forgold coins, such as the  Venetian ducat or the florin of the Florentine Republic, providing currenciesthat  were accepted as money of account in international markets. Gold asa form of  monetary exchange thus facilitated economic expansion and theearly development  of systems of banking and credit in the goldsmiths andmoney changer  guilds. Creation of wealth during the 14th and 15thcenturies, emanating from the increasingly powerful merchant and tradesmanclass, generated a new form of  material culture, a trend that fosteredmuch of the patronage of art and literature  during the Renaissance byfueling demand with new patterns of spending disposable  wealth. Gold wasthus central to the circumstances behind the phenomenon  of RenaissanceItaly, a period when renewed appreciation for the ideologies and practices of Greek and Roman antiquity and revolutionary new attitudesabout  natural philosophy, civic life, and individuality coalesced to formwhat historian  Jacob Burkhardt considered to be the nucleus of modern society. The emergence of more sophisticated economies during the Renaissancecontributed  to the predominance of political centralization in Europe andthe Middle  East that came to be known asthe “rise of the modern state” in the early  modern era. Maintaining astrong treasury with adequate gold reserves; upholding  authoritativemonetary policy, regulating the flow of gold and silver bullion, and mintingnational coinage; and sustaining opulent patronage of the arts as  ademonstration of power and authority in courtly life were essentialcomponents  of empire building and balance-of-power politics among thegreat powers  of Europe and the Mediterranean from the 16th to the 18thcentury. Demand for  gold in this period created a need for greaterterritorial expansion and access to  efficient trade routes, which set inmotion centuries of discovery and exploration  that resulted in Europeansettlement and colonization of North and South  America, India,Africa, and Asia. In order to support thewidening bureaucratic  and economic functions of the state, banking andcredit institutions expanded  and modern academic disciplines developed incolleges and universities to advise  rulers and government administrators.Gold thus influenced the establishment  of modern economic theory,chemistry, natural history, geology, and industrial  technology.

Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California’s SacramentoRiver  Valley in 1848, and subsequent 19th-century gold rushes inAustralia, the Klondike,  and South Africa, the global production of goldincreased tenfold, a phenomenon  that led to the western expansion of theUnited States, scientific and  technological advancements in the miningindustry, and a level of gold reserve assets  that made the era of thegold standard possible between 1880 and the 1930s,  when 59 countriesaround the world adopted a currency pegged to either a uniform  goldstandard or a gold exchange standard. During this period, statesmen andeconomic  advisers considered gold to be integrally tied to the power andlegitimacy of  the state. Even after the gold standard becameunsustainable in the economic environment  of post–World War II globaleconomies, economists and political leaders  clung fiercely to the idea ofthe need to maintain currencies convertible into gold  equivalents. Manyleaders shared the sentiment of French economist Jacques Rueff  who fearedthe collapse of the gold standard would undermine the preservation  offree democratic society. Adherence to the gold standard had fosteredcredibility  and cooperation among nations and was thought to havecontributed to the creation  of political and economic stability indeveloping regions.
With the final collapse of the gold standard and global pegging of foreign currencies to the U.S. dollar at exchange rates tied to fixed prices and adequategold  reserves in 1971, national currencies were no longer convertibleinto gold and  conceptions of value in monetary policy adjusted to meetthe growing needs of  new dynamics in more global economic and financialsystems. Yet gold reserves  remained an important tool among nationaltreasuries and supranational institutions  such as the InternationalMonetary Fund in the preservation of economic  stability and internationalrelations. Gold continued to shine; however, although  no longer at thecore of systems of monetary exchange, gold assumed new levels  of valueduring the late 20th century as a traded commodity when scientificinnovations  in nanotechnology discovered significant applications of goldin its nanoparticulate  form that could be efficiently employed incritical emergent industries  such as computer microcircuit boards,aerospace technologies, information and  communication technology, transportationand energy, biomedical research, and  health and beauty products.
At the beginning of the 21st century, globaleconomic crisis and the erosion of  faith in banking and creditinstitutions triggered an unprecedented increase in the  price of gold anda resurgence of investment in gold as an asset. When in doubt,  it seems,humankind still retains a deep regard and faith in gold’s supreme and enduring value. Indeed, it is ironic that during periods of strife or crisis,scholars,  politicians, and citizens have often weighed in on gold’sfunction in contemporary  society, and in doing so engaged in an ancientdebate. Perhaps gold’s ultimate  purpose in human history will prove to bereminiscent of the myth in which the  ancient Athenian philosopher Solonreminded King Croesus of Lydia that human  happiness may run a course atpace with riches but is never simply based on  wealth.

ACultural Encyclopedia

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