Mandalay, 3 August 2016
A few weeks ago, I read of the death of an Indian money-lender, murdered by a couple of people to whom he owed money. It was a banal and sordid murder, no different from the hundreds of banal and sordid murders which occur every day the world over. If this particular one was splashed all over the front pages of many newspapers, it was because the unfortunate victim had earlier shot to global fame for purchasing … a shirt made of gold (an idea, I have to say, which I find pretty bling).
Ah, gold! That lovely, soft, malleable metal, which never rusts, which glows yellow like the sun. Which has been lusted after by so many through the ages. It sent the Conquistadors sailing half way round the globe to an unknown world, not to understand it but to rip the gold out of its heart.
But gold has also inspired artisans for at least six thousand years to make beautiful, beautiful objects. It is these lovely creations which I wish to celebrate today, not the ugly side of gold.
Given where this post started, my first inclination was to search on the Internet for examples of powerful potentates from the past who were discovered by archaeologists buried in shirts or tunics of gold. Alas, I found none, whether because my surfing skills are not up to the task or because even kings of old found this idea really too bling, or because archaeologists simply haven’t stumbled across such cases yet. The closest I got to it was jade burial suits used during China’s Han dynasty by members of the royal family; in some cases, the jade pieces of the suit were sewn together with gold wire.
But as I surfed the internet, looking for gold shirts from faraway times, I stumbled across a treasure hoard of ancient gold pieces, some found buried with kings, princes, and their consorts, others buried for safekeeping by their owners who, for some reason, never returned to reclaim them. For instance, I was completely smitten by some of the gold work that archaeologists have found in various Scythian royal tombs in Southern Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus region more generally. Look at this pectoral, from the 4th C BC!
Here’s a detail – see how fine the work is!
Or how about these two vessels, also from the 4th C BC. They were apparently a pair, with this one
sitting on top of the other.
Or this bowl, from more or less the same period.
Or this comb, from slightly earlier, late 4th C BC, early 5th C BC.
The articles I’ve read about these pieces suggest that they were not actually made by the Scythians but by Greeks, living perhaps in the Crimean region. Fair enough, but this Scythian deer plaque, from the 7th C BC, was surely locally made
as was this belt buckle from the same period.
Thracian kings, it seems, were also desirous to be surrounded by fine gold objects. Consider, for instance, Bulgaria’s Panagyurishte gold treasure, thought to have been owned by King Seuthes III and buried to hide them from marauding Celts or Macedonians. I show three pieces from the hoard, all from the 3rd or 4th C BC: two rhytons, or drinking horns
and a plate.
Again, the detail on these pieces is exquisite.
Mention of marauding Celts makes me look in the direction of the Northern European lands, where Celts were also known to hurriedly bury hoards of gold objects at the sound of approaching marauders. This beautiful spiral torc from 1st-4th C BC
was part of a cache of torcs found near Stirling in Scotland. This 70 BC torc instead was part of a hoard discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk, England.
This necklace, on the other hand, is a copy of a 6th-7th C BC original that was buried in Lorup, Germany.
I have to say, while I greatly admire the artistry that went into the Thracian and Scythian pieces, I instinctively empathize with the geometric simplicity of these Celtic pieces. “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” has always been my motto.
But that didn’t stop me from whistling when I saw some of the pieces that were made in what is now Iran. Look at this 8th-10th C BC cup, for instance, with its row of wild goats walking primly around it.
This must have been a popular design, because this cup from a later period (4th-5th C BC) has instead lions or tigers walking round it.
This 4th-5th C BC drinking cup holds its own to the two Thracian rhytons I show above
while this 3rd-4th C BC Janus-faced cup is a marvel to behold.
There are many, many other beautiful ancient gold objects out there, but I have to bring this little essay to a close. Let me finish with the oldest gold objects so far found. These are datable to the period 4,200-4,600 BC, and come from a necropolis in Varna, now Bulgaria’s largest city on the Black Sea. Compared to the pieces I show above, the objects in these tombs are quite modest in their design. What caught my attention was this reconstruction of one of the burials in the necropolis.
I suppose the man to whom this skeleton belonged was a grandee, and was laid to rest surrounded by all his worldly riches. But as I gaze at this skeleton, I cannot help but remember the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard. After musing over Yorick’s skull (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy …”), Hamlet turns to Horatio.
Hamlet: Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.
Horatio: What’s that, my lord?
Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?
Horatio: E’en so.
Hamlet: And smelt so? pah!
Puts down the skull
Horatio: E’en so, my lord.
Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
Horatio: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider.
Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
India’s “gold man”: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36804209
“Conquista de Mexico”, Diego Rivera: http://www.abc.es/fotonoticias/fotos-espana/20150428/mural-diego-rivera-sobre-162891744561.html
Gold prospectors, Klondike: http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/gold-rush/photos/klondike-gold-rush-pictures/
Modern gold prospectors, Colombia: http://www.jansochor.com/photo-blog/gold-mining-colombia
Jade burial suit: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/454159943647748843/
Scythian pectoral, Ukraine, 4th C BC: http://www.craftycristian.com/tag/artifact/
Scythian pectoral-detail: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians
Scythian vessel-top, 4th C BC: http://phys.org/news/2015-06-archeologists-gold-artifacts-scythian-grave.html
Scythian vessel-bottom, 4th C BC: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/220-1607/features/4560-rites-of-the-scythians
Scythian bowl, 2nd half 4th C BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2000/golden-deer/photo-gallery
Scythian gold comb, Ukraine, late 5th-early 4th BC: http://museum-of-artifacts.eu/post/100759193962/scythian-golden-comb-5th-century-bc
Scythian deer, end 7th C BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2000/golden-deer/photo-gallery
Scythian belt buckle, 7th C BC: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians#/media/File%3AGold_scythian_belt_title_from_Mingachevir%2C_Azerbaijan.JPG
Thracian drinking horn-goat: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/174444185537354589/
Thracian drinking horn-deer: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/492510909227090261/
Ancient Greek plate (phiale): http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/g/gold.html
Spiral torc, Scotland, 300-100 BC: http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/iron-age-gold-torcs/
Celtic torc, Snettisham hoard: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2395380
Ancient wire necklace (copy), Lorup hoard, Germany, late Bronze Age, 700-600 BC: http://www.ancientwire.com/spiralnecklace.htm
Achaemenid cup-wild goats, 1000-1200 BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/325511?high=on&rpp=50&pg=22&rndkey=20120709&ft=*&pos=1095
Achaemenid gold cup, Kalardasht, 800 BC: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_cup_kalardasht.jpg
Achaemenid drinking cup: http://www.daftarche.com/تاریخ،-فرهنگ،-همبود-13/persian-mythology-543-چاپ/برگه-3.html
Achaemenid Janus cup: http://www.iransara.info/main-previous%20post.htm
Varna man: http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2015/07/style/gold/