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.