6,500 years old: the oldest gold jewelry in the world

Figure of the month: 4500 BC

Purely by accident, excavation work to lay a cable duct in 1972 revealed that the significance of gold as a symbol of wealth and prestige dates back even further than historians had previously assumed. It is not the Egyptian pyramids with their magnificent tombs that represent the earliest evidence of the popularity of gold in all conceivable forms such as jewellery, precious accessories or insignia of the social importance of the buried, but the cemetery of Varna in Bulgaria: the gold discovered there was dated back to 4500 BC in an examination of the burial site.

3,000 pieces of jewellery spread over 7,500 square metres

The Chalcolithic Necropolis (“City of the Dead”) of Varna extends over 7,500 square metres and houses 254 graves. This spatial extent of the burial ground is remarkable but not the reason Varna is considered a superlative, especially among historians. In fact, this special honour goes to the Wadi al-Salam cemetery (also known as Wadi as-Salam) in Najaf, Iraq, which, with an area of 9.17 square kilometres and around five million corpses buried, is considered the largest cemetery in the world. Wadi al-Salam has only been used since the 7th century, some 5,200 years after Varna. The reason for Varna’s fame is the discovery of more than 3,000 pieces of jewellery from the late Neolithic and early Copper Age, with a total weight of 6.5 kilograms. This quantity exceeds the total amount of gold artefacts recovered worldwide from the Copper Age to date many times over. Most of the jewellery consists of gold with an extremely high purity of between 23 and 23.5 carats.

Gold jewellery discoveries suggest clear social differentiation

First of all, the concentration of valuable burial gifts suggests the existence of a ruling class: By far the most gold jewellery – around 5 of the 6.5 kilograms – was found in only four graves, three of which contained only jewellery. One, however, was the final resting place of the ruler of the time. The Chalcolithic necropolis was also strictly structured according to the tasks and activities of the buried: with the help of horizontal differentiation, tradesmen and craftsmen were buried separately from cattle breeders and farmers. Men and women were also buried differently, with men lying on their backs and women in a lateral crouching position.

The most famous burial sites built 1,800 years later

There are probably no tombs that enjoy a higher degree of fame worldwide than the pyramids – first and foremost the Pyramid of Khufu, the largest and oldest of the three pyramids of Giza. They were built in the times of the Old Kingdom in Egypt from 2700 BC. Unfortunately, these tombs, originally richly decorated with gold jewellery and other showpieces, are among the most heavily looted in history: already in the Pharaonic Empire, tombs were robbed multiple times despite the most severe punishments for grave robbers. The fact that the tips of the pyramids, called pyramidia, were decorated with a special gold-silver alloy, is  unambiguously documented today.

The oldest gold jewellery recovered in America was discovered at Lake Titicaca in Peru, a burial gift dated to around 2000 BC. The English Stonehenge, a ritual site with a sacrificial altar surrounded by numerous graves, also dates back to roughly this time. However, Stonehenge is less famous for burial gifts than for its megalithic stone circle, which is still considered a sacred place.

In Germany, the oldest gold jewellery was discovered in the Upper Palatinate near Regensburg in the grave of a warrior who died more than 4,000 years ago. This finding is considered evidence of the earliest use of gold in Bavaria.

It is not unlikely that even older gold jewellery will be found in the future: the precious metal must have fascinated mankind since time immemorial.

Arnulf Hinkel
Financial journalist

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