• J. W. Barlament

The History and Mystery of the Oldest Gold in the World

Before the Roman Empire left hordes of coins across the Mediterranean and the wider world. Before Alexander, Sargon, or Gilgamesh. Before the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid. Before the farmers of Neolithic Britain raised Stonehenge. Before even writing or the wheel, on the Black Sea coast of modern Bulgaria, there was hierarchy, as evidenced by the greatest treasure of the Copper Age by a mile and the details of the graves in which it was discovered. Before 1972, there’d been less than one pound’s worth of gold artifacts from the Copper Age found anywhere in the world. And then the Varna gold — over 14 pounds’ worth of 3,000 different gold artifacts — was found in an ancient graveyard near the city of Varna. Researchers estimated the finds to be 6,500 years old, originating from the newly-named Varna culture of about 4600–4200 BC. The only way to express this age is “immense”. It’s older than the very first cities. It’s older than almost any existent language family or human culture. It’s from a Europe so distant that practically nothing remains from it today. A few symbols, maybe, might outdate it. Maybe some of our oldest and now most convoluted mythological stories retain a few grains from its time. Really only the most basic practices remain; hunting, cooking, fire-starting, burying the dead, wearing jewelry and the like. People at this time were at a crucial turning point, at which they were only for the first time addressing a need for a formal, organized division of labor. Metalworking was not woodworking or stone knapping; it took such specialized skills and such incredible amounts of time that it necessitated an entire class of people dedicated to it. Following from that came the need for others to feed this new, non-food-producing, metalworking class. And from that came the need for others still to wield the power to manage and enforce this class division. The Varna gold isn’t just an early site with great treasure. It’s the earliest site in the world to provide concrete evidence for social hierarchy in the whole historical record. And we need look no further than the graves themselves for concrete proof: just 4 out of 294 graves contained three-quarters of the cemetery’s total gold. The richest of all, grave 43, belonged to some fabulously high-status man, with more gold buried on and around him than had previously been found in the entire rest of the world from the Copper Age. And yet, in a twist that may place some doubt on the straightforwardness of the social hierarchy here, the cemetery doesn’t only have filled graves. Nor does it have only filled and empty graves. In fact, it has graves filled with human remains (a few with great treasure, some with a few objects and many with nothing) and graves filled with heaps of treasure without any remains in them at all. And, further confounding things, these apparently symbolic graves also make up many of the richest. A few have been found with pottery masks, their clay left unbaked, but no other markers distinguish them as belonging to any particular person or clan. Whether this was done for an economic, political, spiritual or some other reason, we may never know, but it at least displays some of the variance in historical burial practices left lost or misunderstood today. But beyond even that, the Varna gold discredited our entire popular conception of Copper Age Europe. Up until its discovery, the people inhabiting Europe in this era were considered to be overwhelmingly peaceful and egalitarian. Many anthropologists of the day — this is, of course, at the tail end of the 60s counterculture and in the middle of second-wave feminism — even asserted that their societies had been matriarchal (mostly on the back of the wealth of so-called Venus figurines, which, as it turns out, may have been more practical tools than objects of worship). But this site shows just the opposite, and where there is evidence, hypotheses must bend to it. The Varna gold stands as one of those few and far between archaeological finds that take a known development in history and push it back thousands of years, beyond a shadow of a doubt, without any further explanation. The time when archaeological finds turned with ease into popular culture sensations may be over, but don’t be fooled; earth-shattering finds have been made all the time all over the world in the past several decades that would have just as radically transformed our views of the past — if only more people knew of them.


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