Humans have valued gold for one reason or another more or less since its discovery – it’s pleasing to the eye and feels good in the hand, after all. However, a recent analysis of the earliest gold artifacts discovered in Ireland reveal something curious: The gold appears to have come from Cornwall in the U.K., meaning they may have stumbled upon one of the earliest-known economic trade routes.
What makes the find even more unusual is the fact that Ireland in the early Bronze Age was home to plenty of natural gold reserves – certainly enough such they they wouldn’t have needed to import gold from elsewhere. And yet, that’s exactly what they did.
“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,” said lead author Dr Chris Standish.
Of course, the concept of “value through provenance” didn’t end with prehistoric Irishmen, and in fact still exists in modern times. Every day, people clamor (and pay a premium) for Egyptian cotton, Russian caviar, Japanese denim, Spanish ham, French wine, American beef, etc. Whether or not it makes an actual difference in the finished product is a matter of taste, but it’s certainly not unreasonable to imagine Bronze Age artisans developing a preference for imported gold, real or imagines.
The analysis was conducted using a technique known as laser ablation mass spectrometry, which measured lead isotopes in tiny fragments of gold artifacts and compared them to gold deposits found around the area. The gold used in the Irish trinkets appears to have come from Cornwall, and the researchers believe it was practically an unwanted by product, at the time.
“Perhaps what is most interesting is that during this time, compared to Ireland, there appears to be much less gold circulating in Cornwall and southern Britain. This implies gold was leaving the region because those who found it felt it was of more value to trade it in for other ‘desirable’ goods – rather than keep it,” said Dr Standish.
In all likelihood, the gold was found while searching for a (then) more valuable metal – tin. Tin is essential to the production of bronze, creating the sturdier metal when combined with copper. Tin also happens to be relatively rare compared to bronze’s other components, making finding and collecting tin a priority – he who had the most tin had the most bronze, and the military superiority that came along with it. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that as they dug and panned and sluiced for tin, any gold they found was sold off to whoever wanted it.
Gold did not appear as an economic currency until nearly two thousand years later, meaning that in the earliest times, its significance was likely more religious and ceremonial rather than monetary.