This week: Gold

Mask of Agamemnon. Image: Xuan Che/Wikimedia Commons.

According to a recent estimate by the World Gold Council, the total quantity of this precious pale yellow metal discovered around the world throughout all of human history amounts to just 201,296 tonnes. If the whole lot were melted down to form a single cube, it would measure just 22 metres on each side.

Despite its relative scarcity, however, gold has had an impact on our culture that is hard to overstate. It has always been highly valued – from remote antiquity (pieces of gold have been found in Spanish caves used by our Paleolithic ancestors in about 40,000 BC) to the present day – and has served as a symbol of our loves, desires, hopes and aspirations, and occasionally of our nightmares, too. Just think of poor King Midas.

This week on The Past, we follow this golden thread to the remote Eurasian Steppe, where archaeologists recently made an extraordinary discovery: the intact grave of a teenage archer belonging to the Saka people of eastern Kazakhstan, who was buried some 2,700 years ago surrounded by an astonishing array of golden objects – including jewellery, weapon-cases and elaborate ornaments – which had lain undisturbed beneath the permafrost ever since.

As these dazzling artefacts go on display for the first at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Rebecca Roberts and Saltanat Amir explain in the new issue of Minerva magazine and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, how they came to be unearthed and what they reveal about the ancient culture of the Saka.

We’ve also been delving into the archives in search of more golden prizes: we travelled to the Peloponnese to see what another treasure-filled tomb can tell us about a critical point in European history, when the Minoan culture of island Crete gave way to that of the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece; we journeyed to the Americas to understand how man’s fascination with shiny objects was entwined with early ideas about sorcery and belief; and we returned to the Steppe in the company of distinguished archaeologist Barry Cunliffe to wonder at the exquisitely crafted golden ornaments produced by the Scythians, the most mysterious of ancient peoples.

And finally, if all that leaves you with a hunger for more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of gold. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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