Gold Fever: A millennial history

In late 2012, global gold production was estimated at close to 174,000 tonnes, the equivalent of a 20-meter-wide cube or 2 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The discovery of this source of wealth has been marred by wars, deceit, and murderous invasions. Gold has always fascinated and seduced humanity, whose greed has driven us to commit the worst atrocities. How can we explain the yellow metal's incredible power of attraction? In a new University of Liège publication, Pierre J. Goossens has examined over eight millennia of mining history in order to help explain gold's appeal.

COVER PJ GossensA well-known figure in the international mining sector and an honorary lecturer in the Faculty of Applied Sciences, Pierre J. Goossens is certainly one of the most qualified to write a book on the history of gold. Over the course of his impressive 45-year career, this mining geology consultant became interested in gold and has always been fascinated by the precious metal. He began studying gold, copper, and zinc mines during his work as a consultant. His clients - mining companies, the World Bank, and a variety of European financial institutions –mainly hired him to study the mining potential of specific regions or to determine the economic feasibility of projects and evaluate their mining codes. His work has led him all over the world, from Northeast Siberia to Southern Chile, as well as Africa and Asia. His book is a veritable "gold mine" of information about the precious metal, as it is based on his research, his experience, his unrivalled knowledge of the field, his participation in several research projects, and his team’s discovery of gold deposits in Mali. Pierre J. Goossens’ publication recounts the history of gold from its origins 8 millennia ago to today and examines all of the time periods and civilizations with a fine-toothed comb. The book also provides valuable information about different gold extraction techniques and offers a quantitative overview of production over the centuries.

The unwavering appeal of gold

Human greed for gold goes back to the beginning of time. Its golden yellow colour, its rarity, its indestructibility, its heavy weight, and its malleability (a single nugget can be transformed into a very thin sheet just several microns thick) all contribute to its unparalleled appeal. Gold has always aroused greed and sparked wars and invasions, despite the fact that it is completely unnecessary to human life.  Nowadays the dazzling yellow metal serves as a safeguard against inflation. It is hoarded in order to replace currencies that have become unstable in the wake of financial disasters in the past few decades.

The first historical record of gold comes from Bulgaria eight thousand years ago, but the fascination with gold started even earlier.  "I found evidence of mining as early as eight thousands years ago, but was unable to find anything older," explains Pierre J. Goossens. “The earliest traces of gold are mainly ornaments found in tombs. Gold was therefore already being hammered and worked by goldsmiths who understood its properties. But even before gold-working began, humans were undoubtedly already attracted to the metal. A hunter simply had to walk along a river looking for game to be drawn to the gold pebbles that glittered in the sunshine. It's very likely that he would then have offered this material that shone like the sun to his shamans and gods.”

The gold of the gods later became the gold of kings. For several millennia, gold was only available to great powers and the ruling classes, before becoming more accessible under the reign of Croesus, the king of Lydia (from 561 to 547 BC). Croesus developed the first coins made of electrum, a naturally-occurring gold and silver alloy that could be found in the Pactolus river. At the time, various countries were engaged in very vigorous trade. The kingdom of Lydia was located at a major crossroads and barter was a common practice there. Up to that point, traders and travellers used bulls as their primary medium of exchange. Needless to say, the introduction of gold coins offered a huge advantage in terms of transportation and malleability. The first coins were stamped with a bull's head, in honour of the former exchange unit. Gold thus left the hands of kings and began to be used by traders.

(1) Pierre J. Goossens, "L'or à travers les âges. Une histoire pas toujours dorée", Presses Universitaires de Liège, Collection Essai, 2013.

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