Thursday, July 14, 2016

Early History of Gold by Alexander Watt 1885


Early History of Gold by Alexander Watt 1885

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Respecting the antiquity of man's knowledge of gold, we find, on referring to the Holy Scriptures, that so early as in the second chapter of Genesis, ver. II, Moses states that the land of Havilah, encompassed by one of the four rivers which watered the Garden of Eden, possessed gold; and, moreover, in the following verse he says: "And the gold of that land is good." It is well known that gold, unlike most other metals, chiefly occurs in nature in the metallic state; and exists, in the form of gold dust, in the sands of various rivers and in alluvial soils of certain districts. It is probable, therefore, that the gold referred to by the sacred writer was discovered on the banks of the River Pison, and that it was the first of the metals known to man. That this metal was manufactured into ornaments for personal adornment at a very early period is shown in Genesis xxiv. 22, in which we read, "the man took a golden earring, half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold." Job mentions gold five times. In chapter xxviii. i he says: "Surely there is a vein [or mine] for silver, and a place for gold where they fine it;" and again, referring to the products of the earth, "and it hath dust of gold"— probably the only state in which it was found at that period; and, since it could be separated from earthy matters by the simple process of washing, would be readily obtainable.

The Hebrews appear to have designated gold by seven different names :—i. Zahab, or gold in general, 2. Zahab tob, good gold (as referred to in Genesis). 3. Zahab Ophir, gold of Ophir (1 Kings ix. 28), such as was brought by the navy of Solomon. 4. Zahab muphaz, solid gold, pure wrought gold, or "the best gold" (1 Kings x. 18). 3. Zahab shachut, beaten gold (2 Chron. ix. 15). 6. Zahab segor, shut up gold, that is, gold in the ore, or, as the rabbins explain it, "gold shut up in the treasuries"—gold in bullion. 7. Zahab parvaim, or the gold of parvaim, which was employed in building the Temple at Jerusalem, 1015 B.c. An immense quantity of gold must have been used both in the construction of the Temple and in making the numerous vessels, candlesticks, and utensils required for use or ornamentation; but doubtless at that epoch gold was obtained from the mines of Arabia. In Solomon's time this metal appears to have been exceedingly abundant, and silver probably more so, for this latter metal "was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon" (1 Kings x. 21). In verse 27 we read, "And the king made silver to be in Jerusalem as stones," and cedars to be as sycamore-trees, "for abundance."

We may form some idea of the vast profusion of gold (and silver) in the days of Solomon from the weight and value of the Jewish coins of the period. A talent of silver = 3000 shekels (a shekel weighing 219 grains) was of the value of about £353. IIs 10d, and a talent of gold of the same weight was worth £5075 sterling. In one year Solomon is stated to have received (1 Kings x. 14) "six hundred three score and six talents of gold," or £3,646,350 sterling. From the frequency with which the precious metal is mentioned in the Old Testament, and the many purposes to which it was applied, there can be no doubt that it must have been for a long period exceedingly abundant—far more so indeed than in the mediaeval ages, when those remarkable impostors—the early alchemists— wasted their energies in trying to make it from baser metals.

That the art of refining gold was practised in the time of Job is clear from the passage before quoted, while David compares the works of the Lord to silver tried in a furnace of earth, and purified many times. Malachi, again, in comparing the Judge of all the earth to a refiner's fire, says, "And He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of gold and silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver." It does not appear probable that the ancients (except, perhaps, the Egyptians) were acquainted with any other method of refining the precious metals than by the aid of the furnace. Doubtless the mineral acids were unknown to them, therefore the method of parting gold and silver with nitric acid, as pursued in our day, could not have been practised. It is believed that nitric acid was unknown until discovered by the alchemists in the thirteenth century; but the author's esteemed friend, the late William Herapath, of Bristol, discovered that the markings on a piece of mummy cloth were made with a solution of silver, which he concluded to have been the nitrate, or common marking-ink. It is believed by some persons that the Egyptians were really acquainted both with nitric and sulphuric acids, in which case they would doubtless employ either of them in the operation of separating or parting gold and silver, and would therefore be acquainted with the fact that a solution of nitrate of silver would produce a dark and permanent stain upon linen or other similar fabric.

It appears that the art of extracting gold and silver from their ores by the process of amalgamation with mercury, or quicksilver, was known at a very early period, for the process is mentioned both by Vitruvius and Pliny, who lived about the beginning of the Christian era, the latter having described the process much in the same way as it is practised in our time. There is little doubt that so soon as mercury was discovered, its power of combining with gold and silver, or amalgamating with them, without the aid of heat, would soon be recognized.

The extreme softness and malleability of gold were taken advantage of by Solomon, for in i Kings xvi. 17, we read that he made "two hundred targets of beaten gold " and "three hundred shields of beaten gold," but there is no doubt that the Egyptians practised gold-beating at a much earlier period, and were also well-skilled in the art. Indeed, there are evidences in the Egyptian collection of the British Museum of the application of gold-leaf to gilding purposes, and notably in the mummy of a singing boy, the face of which is gilded.

Gold was extensively adopted by the heathens for the figures of their gods or idols, and many of these, according to Herodotus and other writers, were of immense magnitude. The golden calf made by Aaron in the wilderness, from the ear-rings of the male and female Hebrews, was probably of considerable weight.

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