Archaeologists may have found evidence which suggests that gold trade between populations in the south-west UK and Ireland may have happened around 2.500 B.C., in the early Bronze Age, which could prove to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last couple of years.
In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, a group of researchers lead by Chris Standish of the British University of Southampton analyzed fragments from 50 different gold artifacts which were stored in the National Museum of Ireland, all dated to the early Bronze Age. After using a technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry to examine the fragments’ chemical composition, the researchers found that the gold from which the artifacts were made originated from mines near Cornwall in UK.
“This is an unexpected and particularly interesting result as it suggests that Bronze Age gold workers in Ireland were making artifacts out of material sourced from outside of the country, despite the existence of a number of easily-accessible and rich gold deposits found locally. It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn’t exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production” was the conclusion of study lead author Chris Standish.
Localizing the origin of the gold was possible by analyzing the amount of tin contained within the little fragments and then matching it to the gold deposit which had the most similar composition to it.
The most important question that this discovery poses is why did prehistoric populations living in Ireland choose to import gold, when they didn’t lack gold deposits in their area? The question is probably less related to commercial value itself but more to the symbolic aspect of gold – in prehistoric societies, gold wasn’t necessarily seen as a trade currency, but it was attributed magical and symbolic properties in some cases. The oldest gold coin to date was discovered last fall on the shores of Bulgaria and had the coin dated no further than the 7th century BC – almost two thousand years after the proposed date of the trade route.
A theory could point to the fact that the population inhabiting the area around Cornwall did not put much too much value on gold – Cornwall mines are mostly full with tin. That could mean the gold was mined together with the tin, and then traded away because it was considered of lesser value. At the same time, recipients of the gold might have used it instead of that from their own deposits due to possibly attributing some perceived magical and symbolic value to the imported material.
Image Source: Times Gazette