Monday, February 22, 2016

Stolen History, and the Mystery of Gold

I used to be a big fan of The History Channel, back when they used to actually show documentaries on history. The Learning Channel (now TLC) and Discovery Channel, too. My primary interest has always been in early civilizations, up to and including Greco-Roman; Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Phoenicia and so on, but I'd pretty much watch whatever was on. 

But after a while I came to realize how fragmentary the historical record of these cultures actually is, how so much of what is taught and believed is based on hypothesis and conjecture. And these are cultures who kept pretty good written records.

With cultures who did not, the level of speculation masquerading as established fact is even more egregious. If you look for it, the sheer amount of it on offer from people with rather impressive credentials can actually throw you for a loop.

Which brings me to the Sumerians, often cited as the first great civilization in the historical record.

I'm sure most of you know about the Sumerians, but what you may not know is that they were lost to history as a unique people for millennia, and that Sumerian civilization as a distinct enterprise (as opposed to the Akkadians or Babylonians, the Semitic peoples that essentially adopted Sumerian culture as their own) has only been known of for less than 150 years.
Before the mid-19th century AD, the existence of the Sumerian people and language was not suspected. The first major excavations leading to the discovery of Sumer were conducted (1842-1854) at Assyrian sites such as Nineveh, Dur Sharrukin, and Calah by the French archaeologists Paul Émile Botta and Victor Place...
In 1869 the French archaeologist Jules Oppert suggested that the name Sumerian, from the royal title King of Sumer and Akkad appearing in numerous inscriptions, be applied to the language. 
In the late 19th century, a series of excavations was undertaken at Lagash by French archaeologists working under the direction of the Louvre and at Nippur by Americans under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. The French excavations at Lagash were conducted from 1877 to 1900 by Ernest de Sarzec...
In fact, the Akkadians so closely adopted Sumerian culture that most scholars see the two as essentially contiguous. But that's academia and mainstream history. I think there's a parallel history at work, one which we're not privy to, one which is in fact being hidden away from us.

I mean, literally taken away and hidden from us.

Many of you might know about the looting of the Baghdad museum during the Iraq War. There's been a major PR push to gloss over the losses to the collectiona, with headlines about how the museum "recovered" the lost artifacts. But read further. From last year:
Iraq's national museum has officially reopened in Baghdad, 12 years after it was closed in the aftermath of the US-led invasion. Many of the antiquities looted during the war have now been recovered and restored. 
The Iraq Museum estimates that some 15,000 items were taken in the chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Almost one-third have been recovered.
"One-third." That means two-thirds of the lost artifacts are still missing. 66%. That percentage would be an overwhelming majority in an election. Why is this important?
Take, for instance, the famous "Baghdad Batteries", which historians still can't account for or explain. But some have a theory that seems supportable by the evidence:
In any war, there is a chance that priceless treasures will be lost forever, articles such as the "ancient battery" that resides defenceless in the museum of Baghdad. 
For this object suggests that the region, whose civilizations gave us writing and the wheel, may also have invented electric cells - two thousand years before such devices were well known. 
Other scientists believe the batteries were used for electroplating - transferring a thin layer of metal on to another metal surface - a technique still used today and a common classroom experiment.  
In the making of jewellery, for example, a layer of gold or silver is often applied to enhance its beauty in a process called gilding.
However, the electroplating explanation has been disputed by historians because examples of this technique have not been found. 
One serious flaw with the electroplating hypothesis is the lack of items from this place and time that have been treated in this way. 
"The examples we see from this region and era are conventional gild plating and mercury gilding," says Dr Craddock. "There's never been any untouchable evidence to support the electroplating theory."
Well, there may in fact be an incredibly sound, reasonable and very well documented reason for that lack of evidence... 
Iraq became a smuggler's paradise in the late 19th Century.  In fact, looting Iraq's treasures had been such a problem that it warranted its own Wikipedia page.
Looting of ancient artifacts has a long tradition. As early as 1884, laws passed in Mesopotamia about moving and destroying antiquities. By the end of WW1, British-occupied Mesopotamia had created protections for archeological sites where looting was beginning to become a problem. They established an absolute prohibition on exporting antiquities. 
By the mid 1920s the black market for antiquities was growing and looting began in all sites where antiquities could be found. After Iraq was independent of Britain the absolute ban on antiquity exports was lifted. Until the mid 1970s Iraq was one of very few countries to not prohibit external trade in antiquities. This made Iraq attractive to looters and black market collectors from around the globe.
Pay attention to the timeline here. There'd been archaeological digs in Iraq going on for some time but it wasn't until the discovery of Sumer that the problem got so bad that laws had to be passed. And even those laws did little to stop the pillage. It wasn't until the mid 1970s that the black marketeers were stopped. 

It's probably a complete coincidence that that was the period when Saddam Hussein rose to power as de facto leader of IraqOr that the looting that resumed shortly after Hussein being overthrown.

The same Hussein who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar II, the legendary King of Babylon, heir to Sumer.

Despite the lack of apparent evidence, there is another excellent reason to believe that electroplating was indeed the purpose for the Baghdad Batteries and that is the Sumerian reverence for gold. If they are indeed our earliest recorded civilization than they are the first to pay special attention to gold. The trade in gold to Ur held special significance:
Textual evidence indicates that gold was reserved for prestige and religious functions. It was gathered in royal treasuries, temples and used for adornment of elite peoples as well as funerary offerings (such as the graves at Ur). 
Another of the 'firsts' with the Sumerians seems to be burying huge amounts of treasure with their dead royals. This would be a practice more associated with the Egyptians, who went to almost unimaginable lengths to accompany their dead kings and queens with the finest treasures in the land.

Probably the most famous artifacts discovered from this period are from the Royal Tombs at Ur, circa 2500 BC, where kings and queens were buried with magnificent gold, sliver, lapis and carnelian jewelry, vessels, musical instruments and weaponry, as well as attendants who were presumably sacrificed with them. 
The Sumerians believed it was necessary to bring gifts (bribes) for the gods and goddesses of the underworld to insure the deceased had a comfortable stay in the afterlife. 
This seems a waste of resources, putting it mildly. And these were not simple people; they were far advanced in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and so on and so forth. Surely someone at some point would have noticed that the bodies or the treasure weren't going anywhere. Where did this practice come from?
The practice at Ur remains a great mystery, with no parallels (yet) discovered at any other sites, except for some scant evidence at Kish and only occasional hints in surviving cuneiform texts. 
The Egyptians not only adopted the custom of burying the dead from the Sumerians they also adopted the reverence for gold, calling it "the flesh of the gods." Some believe it was associated with immortality in the ancient world since it doesn't rust or corrode (which explains an association or symbolism, but nothing more) Gold's chemical symbol Au, comes from the Latin Aurum, meaning "Shining Dawn."

As in Aurora. Now there's something I didn't know before. Huh.  

Now, I'm sure many of you have seen stories about the price of gold going through the roof. In fact, there's a move now to hoard gold. But what happens if the fundamentals change and gold crashes again? Gold is not like oil or even copper- it can be used for useful purposes (aerospace, significantly) but the overwhelming majority of it is not used for anything at all.

What you may not know is that gold's price was not only remarkably stable for decades, it was also rather low. It's only been in the past three decades that gold has skyrocketed.

You also may not know that gold is essentially valuable for one reason: because people want it. But why do they want it? What is its value? Gold is useful but other metals are more useful as commodities. And only 10% of the world's gold is used in industrial applications. Over half of it is used for nothing at all:
It’s a bit puzzling why gold’s chemical properties are seen as superior to other metals. After all, when compared to gold: 
 Silver has far more industrial uses  Copper is much more plentiful and has superior electrical conductivity  Platinum and palladium are both more rare and the best known metals to reduce harmful auto emissions
From 'Why do we value gold?', BBC News:
First off, it doesn't have to have any intrinsic value. A currency only has value because we, as a society, decide that it does. As we've seen, it also needs to be stable, portable and non-toxic. And it needs to be fairly rare - you might be surprised just how little gold there is in the world. 
If you were to collect together every earring, every gold sovereign, the tiny traces gold in every computer chip, every pre-Columbian statuette, every wedding ring and melt it down, it's guesstimated that you'd be left with just one 20-metre cube, or thereabouts.
But this brings us back to our looting narrative. Gold was said to be "as common as dust" in ancient Egypt yet it still had value. And it was silver- the first loser- that was the basis of ancient currencies, most significantly that of Rome. And silver is every bit as useful as gold and in its purest form has only a slight tendency to tarnish.

Given the relatively common objects we see made of gold from Egypt we can only assume there is a lot more out there that is either still buried, destroyed or is in private hands (what I'm thinking). But even scarcity doesn't account with this obsession with gold. BBC again:
But scarcity and stability aren't the whole story. Gold has one other quality that makes it the stand-out contender for currency in the periodic table. Gold is... golden..."That's the other secret of gold's success as a currency," says Sella. "Gold is unbelievably beautiful."  
It's pretty? I guess to some. But so are gems. And many of those are far more rare than gold, but we don't see the universal obsession we see with this metal.

And come to think of it, bronze is an amazingly beautiful alloy, boasting a rich varieties of tones and shades, and was so damn useful we named an entire Age after it. But that's for the second runners up.

I think if you asked people why they are so obsessed with gold, or why they think it's so valuable, they really couldn't answer. They want it because they want it, or because other people want it. Its rarity limits its usefulness (in contrast to silver and copper) so it's essentially a luxury item and not a genuine commodity. 

But again, its price was stable- and low- for a very long time. The price collapsed to the point that the US dollar went off the gold standard.

But I can't help but notice that gold spike in price at the same time the antiquities black market in Iraq was being choked off in the mid 1970s, that it climbed again in 2011 as US troops were being pulled from Iraq and it's on the rebound again as radical Islamists are destroying archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria.

Coincidence? Probably. But in the context of history, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. 

But it comes down to this: I can't help but think our obsession with gold is something we don't even understand, something hardwired into our psyches thousands of years ago for reasons we can only guess at. Think about it- most of the gold in the world is essentially hoarded. People want to have it just to have it. And yet we take it for granted.

Think about this; in times of crisis people are driven to put their faith in shiny metal. Oil, which the entire world needs, crashes, yet shiny metal that gets locked in a vault, skyrockets. And yet, no one thinks that's strange.

I can understand the premodern identification with a metal that seems immortal, but I can name any number of similar beliefs we've definitely outgrown. And platinum is every bit like gold only more so, but we don't see the same obsession with it, do we?

I'm not willing to go the full Sitchin route here but I will note that it's long been identified with the gods- sky gods, significantly- since well, Ancient Sumer. At least. And many people seem to cling to gold in times of crisis the same way religious people cling to their gods.

An inert metal of limited intrinsic value.

I'm not sure what all that means. But I do know it means more than it appears to mean.


  1. Nice post. And let us not forget the myth of Isis fashioning a phallus of gold to replace the lost member of Osiris in order to give birth to Horus. Seems like alien genetic tech needed gold. As in, nothing else will do.

  2. Interesting timing for this essay considering the February 28, 2016 broadcast of the 88th Academy Awards is being entitled "We All Dream In Gold." WADIG

  3. According to Wikipedia (I know, I know) gold is "unaffected by oxygen at any temperature" and "unaffected by most acids" and bases, though there are noted exceptions. There are also a number of industrial, electronic and medicinal applications in modern society.

    What uses it may have had to the ancients is anyone's guess, but I'd start by guessing something related to the above data. One guess is that a golden coating on anything meant to enter the Earth's oceans, or the acidic atmosphere of another planet, would give protection from corrosion. Electroplating is also a good idea for wires and connectors, as many audiophiles would agree. Not saying there were Sumerian stereos, merely a comparable application.

  4. (My battery died just as I tried to post my comment, so apologies if this is a duplicate.)

    I don't buy the "it's pretty" argument, though I also am not persuaded by functional ones. Humans are like magpies, and seem to think anything shiny is pretty. But if you look at the scope of world history/archaeology, there doesn't seem to be much about the intrinsic "value" (say, industrial applications, or scarcity) that determined whether a particular shiny substance was precious. It seems to come down to cultural traditions, but who knows what (or when) the origins of those traditions might have been? For example, the ancient Chinese valued bronze and jade and didn't care much about gold; the Mesoamericans valued quetzal feathers, glass trade beads, and obsidian at least as much as gold. Incidentally, if it's of interest, the current oldest-known site with lots of gold is Varna, Bulgaria, dated just short of 7,000 years ago.

    An archaeologist named Nicholas Saunders wrote several articles on different shiny materials in the pre-Columbian Americas, and the overarching thesis of all of them is that shininess was valued throughout the Americas because it was considered numinous. It was specifically a religious/magical/spiritual value, not simple material wealth. I think that was also true for Eurasia and Africa, and I suspect that it's because shininess is not only eye-catching (great for status display) but is similar to some of the visual phenomena that accompany spirit manifestations and altered states of consciousness. I think this is a big part of why you generally find these precious metals in burial contexts, as opposed to locked in strongboxes in the ruins of ancient houses. Burials are invariably loaded with tradition, ritual, and symbolism.

    That, however, doesn't explain why gold specifically in Eurasia and Africa. At any rate I think you're tugging on an interesting thread.

  5. Hey. Nicely done Chris, I learned a lot from this one, and got a lot of food for thought.

    Just IMHO, I do *not* like gold, I don't wear gold, and I wear a lot of jewelry. All my stuffs are Silver, or just semiprecious stones and the like. I find silver genuinely beautiful, plus there is another thing, best explained by JRR Tolkien - Silver is pure, it can't be bound with evil magic the way gold is. I don't know how else to explain it, I don't like gold at all. I meet quite a few women who don't like gold, either. A new friend and I were comparing jewelry yesterday, and she actually shuddered when I mentioned I wont wear gold, and agreed that she never wears it either. An interesting data point I think, considering the subject of this post.

  6. As a matter of interest, the links between ancient Sumer and Egypt may be greater than we know. Some have argued they share a common heritage, a common source that split but has been lost to history. Even the great Egyptologist Wallis Budge took this kind of idea seriously. What's interesting is how Sumerian religion may have shaped our own heritage. There is a notion that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve has a Sumerian origin or at least influence. Samuel Kramer - a leading Sumerologist - had an intriguing notion about how 'Adam's rib' and Eve being birthed from it is derived from a pun in Sumerian relating to 'rib' and 'make live'. This pun does not translate to Hebrew.

    You can read about it here

    As far as gold is concerned, I have always been intrigued by man's irrational even insane obsession with gold. It has shaped my life, the lives of everybody I grew up with, our parents and grandparents, my whole hometown's very genesis. That's because I grew up in the richest gold mining town (huge city really) in the world. In the history of the world. Johannesburg. The gold mines there (the deepest in the world) are built on the richest vein of underground gold ever discovered. That is the Witwatersrand Reef. And it is a gold mining town that made some men obscenely rich and others obscenely poor. It led to the South African civil war (1899 - 1902) and one cannot understand the slums of Soweto (predating apartheid by decades but we must whitewash the British Empire and blame everything on the Afrikaaner don't you know) and other 'townships' and the miles of mansions in North Johannesburg without understanding the history of gold mining in SA, and yes it was built on the most brutal exploitation. Not only in the past but in the present (nothing much has changed, not when you look beneath the sentimental surface). You cannot understand South Africa without understanding the gold rush there. Apartheid was a brutal symptom, the ugly truth lies deeper and further back in the past.

    It is estimated that about 40% of all the world's gold ever mined (in history) was extracted from the Witwatersrand. And remember Johannesburg was only founded in 1886! In 1970 the Witwatersrand (means 'white water reef') accounted for 80% of the world's gold production. Today it is less than 8% and South Africa's economic woes intensify (not only for that reason).

  7. Monkeys are known to hoard anything shiny they find, tin foil, etc. Just sayin'.
    You ever try colloidal gold? I experimented with it a bit. Had an effect but only the first few times I used it. That dreamy, drugged feeling like taking a few grams of magnesium.

  8. Gold is useful in photo-catalysis. With gold you can split water into hydrogen and oxygen with only light. In deep space or on new planets gold could be used to generate oxygen this way. I would imagine on a grand enough scale gold could be involved in terraforming. I won't provide links but its easy to do a search for the above. Cheers and thanks for an interesting blog post.

  9. The question of gold is exactly what got me interested in the history of the Americas. In both South and North America the westward expansion was driven essentially by a hunt for gold, which seems odd in light of all the other natural resources present.

    This obsession seems apparent in the symbols used by our colonizers, where you always see things like gold, rising suns, phoenixes, and so on. This is what I'm writing about on my blog. I am not convinced at all by the usual historical interpretations, because there is much more going on beneath the surface.

    Why is gold so valuable that we're willing to work for generations, going through extreme duress, just in order to have a shot at it?

    - Bruno

  10. Gold is good at being money in exactly the way that steel is good at being railroad track, or bamboo is good at being furniture. It doesn't degrade, even in as corrosive an environment as the bottom of the ocean. It's a solid, which is easier to transport than a liquid or a gas. It's not radioactive like plutonium or neurotoxic like mercury. It's rare, but not so rare that it's valued on the scale of atoms. Gold is the physical substrate of money.

    Would you rather find a safe full of half-rotted Confederate notes, or a safe full of gold? Gold watches governments and currency regimes rise and fall with total equanimity. The fact that gold just /sits there/ is exactly what makes it valuable. It meets the 4 criteria for money better than anything else on the planet - it's fungible; it's divisible; it's a unit of account; and it's a store of value. Dollars and Euro are trade coupons which depend entirely upon the ability of the issuing regime to enforce their value; these currencies enjoy artificial demand because their respective governments demand these instruments as payments of tax. Gold is an element that extends into dimensional space with definite and largely unchangable properties. Because of this, gold will always be in demand as a form of generational wealth.

  11. To the ancient mind, the world was essentially symbolic. Visible, tangible things are but the reflection or image of their eternal prototype "in heaven." Symbols are multiple: gold is always a "solar" symbol, representing among the metals the same primordial reality which the Sun represents among the planets. To the "primordial" mindset, gold was not selected as a symbol because of its attributes such as incorruptibility, but rather possesses those attributes *because* it is essentially and substantially a symbolic exemplar of the reality which it represents.

    Suppose their mindset is more correct than ours. To modern man, who takes what used to be thought of as mere images for realities in themselves, gold is said to be valued for those attributes alone. No longer cognizant of the Real, he fails to understand what attracts him to symbols such as gold and pursues them for their own sake.

  12. My usual retort to a goldbug when this comes up in conversation is to ask this: If gold has some innate 'intrinsic' value external to Man, then why don't animals fight over bits of it?

    You can't eat it. You can't make weapons with it (too soft). It's pretty for decoration, but you can't build any substantial structures with it. The only reason people want to hoard gold is because all the other people want to hoard gold (ie artificial scarcity brought on by cultural demand).

    So I'd suggest that the animals are smarter than we are regarding precious metals.

    Which brings me to the dirtiest little secret of civilization: There is no such thing as money.... It's all inside our collective heads.

    Most goldbugs assume this only applies to 'fiat currency'. But it applies to anything said to 'have value', because "value" in and of itself is something that can only exist inside the mind. Something has value because we collectively agree (or Will) that it does.

    Some might even consider money one of the greatest magickal spells ever cast over humanity....

    1. Money is a form of technology, michael. It's a system which improves upon barter, because you don't need to find somebody who wants what your chicken; you only need to find someone who wants money (which is, of course, all economic actors.) It's true that if you're alone on a desert island, water is preferable to gold. But since almost all humans live in human societies surrounded by other humans, the technology of money is almost universally useful, and gold is better at being money, because of its actual physical, elemental properties, than paper is.

    2. Thanks for this comment, I agree. I ask people this all the time who think the downfall of America was going off the gold standard. Their arguments all use a form of circular logic that makes no sense to me (it's valuable because everyone thinks it is....why does everyone think this?....because it's a precious metal that is somewhat rare and has a distinct what makes that valuable or even see where this is going).

    3. Per Michael... money is a "conceptual" technology...

  13. Interesting timing, Christopher. I introduced my 4.5 yo son to gold last night. I had him close his eyes as I dropped a few ounces into his palm. I was tired of watching him sort dirty copper and nickel disks so I showed him what real money looks, smells, weighs, and sounds like.

  14. Is gold still better money, better technology when has the medicine my mother needs, and the local drugstore does not?

  15. The only metal I can put in my earring holes is gold. Everything else causes an allergic reaction. If I'm a particularly sensitive case, maybe it signifies some kind of biological compatibility with gold, they did call it the "flesh of the gods". My husband does gold mining as a hobby. Once he started it became a bizarre obsession. He says when you see a fleck revealed in the pan, it looks alive.

  16. I'm still convinced the unconscious desire for gold has to do with monoatomic properties. What gold can do in that form.

  17. Well, there is that whole story of breakaway information storage using gold, and crystalline readers, and cargo cult economies attempting to replicate the process.

    Probably takes buried gold plates and readers to tease out the information. And that is how we get old stories, and idols, and the world as lived in.

    Now the Hindus tease out the gold from discarded piles of electronics. Lots of histories getting repurposed.

    I think gold fuming is only used on the beads. A thin layer of that element is really all it takes to stay shiny.

  18. Deep and powerful connections here, Chris; clues to a greater mystery. Excellent and insightful work. If I think of anything potentially useful to add I will.

  19. You might want to revisit white powdered gold. I remember I was hoarding gold and silver in 06-07. I sold all my gold for silver in 08 cause silver was becoming more valuable. Then in late 08' I sold it all cause I kept thinking if the economy crashes and society is falling apart that bad who is really gonna want my gold and silver.

    PS Great post BTW.

  20. I will respond to these comments tonight or tomorrow. This is a fascinating topic and one worthy of further research I think...

    Trying not to be mr obvious etc, but those lyrics are more interesting after reading this article and comments. It makes me wonder... Lol

  22. STD stands for sexually transmitted illness.