New research has shown puzzling evidence of gold going out of fashion for hundreds of years in ancient societies, societies which been at the forefron
New research has shown puzzling evidence of gold going out of fashion for hundreds of years in ancient societies, societies which been at the forefront of technological innovation in gold mining and gold crafts. The study was undertaken by Prof. Nathaniel Erb-Satullo, lecturer in archaeological science at the Cranfield Forensic Institute of Cranfield University, England.
The research, published in the journal Nature, was based on the analysis of more than 4500 Bronze and Iron Age objects from across 89 sites in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, collectively known as the Caucasus region. Using geospatial analysis and archaeological evidence, the Prof. Erb-Satullo tested different hypotheses for the sharp reduction in gold use across most of the region from 1500 to 800 BC. Prof. Erb-Satullo scanned more than 120 years of published data on a variety of gold objects, such as beads and ornaments, figurines, and utensils, from 4000 to 500 BC.
Jason bringing Pelias the Golden Fleece in ancient Greek myth, during a period when gold was very much in fashion in every way. (Underworld Painter / Public domain )
Gold Trends: From Coveted Material To Rejected Metal
The Caucasus region was one of the earliest to develop sophisticated gold mining and working techniques and had acquired fame for its vast gold treasures, as the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece demonstrates. According to the myth, the Golden Fleece was the pelt of the winged ram Chrysomallos and was a symbol of authority and kingship. The hero Jason and his crew of Argonauts, set out on a quest for the fleece on the orders of King Pelias, so as to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. With the help of Medea, they acquired the Golden Fleece.
However, from 1500 to 800 BC, precious gold fell drastically out of favor with the elite of the Caucasus region . Prof. Erb-Satullo worked on various premises regarding the factors that could have caused this decline. He concluded that social rather than economic or demographic factors were the primary causes of this fall.
Using spatial data, the study found no correlation between access to gold mines and the magnitude of the decline in gold use in the region. Further, genetic and other archaeological data showed no sign of any major demographic disruption to suggest social collapse and technological loss. In fact, there is evidence for population growth, economic well-being, and advancement in metal-working techniques for other metals.
According to the Heritage Daily , Prof. Erb-Satullo said, “The findings suggest that rather than any shortages, the abandonment of gold was due to cultural factors . The way that gold objects were used in society provided clues as to the nature of this social rejection.”
Before the decline set in, gold had become the ultimate symbol of elitism in society . The evidence for this comes from the vast volume of gold objects buried with the dead to accompany them into the afterlife. As a reaction against this kind of “conspicuous consumption,” there was an aversion to the use of gold as well as other status symbols in the period from 1500 to 800 BC.
“People still buried their dead with an array of grave goods and social differences were still visible, but huge, ostentatious burial mounds disappeared, and gold is noticeably absent. In general there was a turn away from a social order that emphasized elite individuals towards one that centered political and religious institutions, manifested by the appearance of monumental fortresses and sacred shrines,” says a Cranfield University press release quoting Dr Erb-Satullo.
Even in ancient societies, social factors and social influences, as is the case with gold, created long-lasting trends. ( Андрей Яланский / Adobe Stock)
Progress, Influenced by Social Factors, is not Always Linear
The research has more generic findings as well for technological innovation in societies. It shows that technological progress is not always linear, and its spread is not always inevitable. Rather, it is heavily influenced by social factors.
Interestingly, Prof. Erb-Satullo also argues how it is generally technological “firsts” that attract attention and not technological “lasts” or instances of abandonment and rejection of particular technologies. According to him, it is actually the “lasts” that provide a better insight into how key technologies and trends were adopted and spread in the first place.
“This study shows that social factors play a major role in the collapse of technological systems, and that such systems are not inherently self-sustaining. The loss, abandonment, and rejection of technologies occurs in a range of circumstances that have not been highlighted by prior research. Societies may reject technologies even after widespread adoption if the foundations of cultural acceptability shift,” he says.
Top image: Trialeti Gold Goblet from ancient Georgia, 1700 – 1500 BC, when gold was still in fashion in every way. Source: Steve Batiuk / ASOR Photo Collection
By Sahir Pandey