Gold and Silver in Ancient Europe
The decline of the Roman Empire during the fourth century CE largely resulted in widespread political and economic chaos in western Europe, which endured for the better part of four centuries, a period that, not surprisingly, is referred to as the Dark Ages. The social chaos, incessant warfare, plagues and general economic instability during that period resulted in a marked reduction in gold mining in the region.
Because of the significant decline in gold production, the precious metal did not circulate to the extent it had circulated in ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, the inability to use the precious metal as currency compelled the Early Medieval kingdoms to use poor-quality copper-based coinage to conduct small-scale trading transactions. Only in the Byzantine-controlled areas – basically what was left of the Roman Empire after its collapse in the west – were gold coins still used for trade.
Any gold that was mined during that period tended to be accumulated in hoards – usually the king’s – and was used for gifts and bribes, and to buy expensive goods. Gold was also held in high regard by the dominant Catholic church, which considered it a symbol of eternity and light. During the Early Medieval period, it had little material value for the church but was used to visually represent the religious value of its most important objects, including crowns, altars, reliquaries and bibles.
While gold declined in importance during the Early and High Medieval ages, at least as a form of currency, it was swiftly replaced by robust silver coinage. From the eighth century onwards, silver coinage was used widely across Europe as the main form of currency.
Europe was richly endowed with silver-bearing ore deposits, the mining of which was particularly prevalent in Medieval Britain. Unfortunately, the adoption of silver coinage largely coincided with the Viking Age, which was a period of much pillaging and looting. Indeed, from the eighth century onwards, the coastal regions of northern and western Europe, as well as Great Britain and Ireland, were subjected to waves of raids by Vikings, whose chief prize was silver coinage. In fact, it is estimated that some 400 t of silver was either looted or extorted by the Vikings from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms alone. By 880 CE, the Vikings had looted Europe’s coinage so effectively that they killed the ‘silver goose’.
After the coastal areas of Europe had been looted to exhaustion, power centres inevitably shifted toward the inner regions of the continent, particularly towards south-east Germany. The shift in power was given considerable stimulus when, in 938 CE, an enormous silver-, lead- and copper-bearing orebody was discovered at Rammelsberg, in eastern Germany. The deposit proved so rich that the mine continued producing well into the modern era, closing down in 1988, after celebrating its 1050th anniversary.
Rammelsberg became the single most important source of silver, lead and copper in central Europe during the Middle Ages and, because of the phenomenal tonnages that were yielded from that mine, silver coinage, once again, became increasingly prevalent. What followed was an incredible silver rush, with major discoveries being recorded and exploited near Freiberg, the Black Forrest, Bohemia, the eastern Alps and in Sardinia. Because of the prolific mines at Rammelsberg, it was usually experienced Saxon miners that were brought in to develop and work the new discoveries.
The increasing availability of silver coinage during the period known as the High Middle Ages ushered in an unprecedented social and economic revolution. The ready availability of money allowed the oppressive feudal system to be replaced by the concept of nation-states with entrenched monarchical and nobility systems. Greater availability of money also meant that larger capitals and public expenditures could be envisaged – not only castles and cathedrals, but also ports, canals, town residences and palaces could be built. There was also more money to support artists and craftsmen.
Governments across Europe took the opportunity to issue large new currencies. For example, the English minted four-million silver pennies a year in the 1220s, rising to ten-million a year in the 1240s, 15-million in the 1250s and 40-million between 1279 and 1281.
The High Middle Ages was a time of significant economic expansion in Europe, the likes of which would only be witnessed again in the nineteenth century. The commercial development of Europe experienced during that period was hardly hampered by the lack of available gold but was rather directly stimulated by the discovery and exploitation of significant silver deposits. However, with increasing stability among the nation-states and growth in prosperity, the active search for gold began and its mining increased marginally.
The first sizeable gold strike in Medieval Europe took place in 1320 at Kremnitz (now Krem-nica), in Slovakia. Following that strike, other gold deposits were discovered in central Germany, France, Italy and Britain. Noteworthy events of this period included the emancipation of the miner from slavery and serfdom as the Saxon miner became a free agent whose services were in demand from Britain to Transylvania. Further, there were major advances in mining technology, mining geology and metallurgy.
While silver certainly dominated the economic scene of the Middle Ages, gold continued to haunt man’s imagination. It was during this period that attention was turned to China, India and other mysterious parts of the Far East by the extraordinary journey that was undertaken by Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century. In his journal, which was published in 1295, he gave an account of the riches he had seen in China: “In this province, gold is found in the rivers and bigger nuggets in the lakes and mountains.” It was such descriptions of gold riches that strongly motivated subsequent explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, to embark on unprecedented journeys of discovery in search of that most precious of metals. Thus, it was the quest for gold that would initiate the Age of Discovery in the fifteenth century.
Gold, chemical symbol Au (from the Latin aurum meaning ‘shining dawn’), is a precious metal which has been used since antiquity in the production of jewellery, coinage, sculpture, vessels and as a decoration for buildings, monuments and statues. Gold does not corrode and so it became a symbol of immortality and power in many ancient cultures. Its rarity and aesthetic qualities made it an ideal material for ruling classes to demonstrate their power and position.
There is also evidence that the Romans smelted gold particles from ores such as iron pyrites. Easily worked and mixed with other metals such as silver and copper to increase its strength and change its colour, gold was used for a wide range of purposes.
The Minoan civilization on Crete in the early 2nd millennium BCE is credited with producing the first cable chain jewellery and the Minoans made a vast array of jewellery items using an extensive range of techniques. Gold jewellery took the form of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings, diadems, pendants, pins and brooches.
The Mycenaean civilization also widely used gold coins, as did the later Greek and Roman Empires, although silver was the more usual material used. One of the most famous gold coins in antiquity was the Roman bezant. First introduced in the reign of Emperor Constantine it weighed up to 70 Troy grains and was in currency from the 4th to the 12th centuries CE.
The value and beauty of solid gold made it an ideal material for particularly important political and religious objects such as crowns, sceptres, symbolic statues, libation vessels and votive offerings. Gold items were sometimes buried with the dead as a symbol of the deceased’s status and the conspicuous (and non-profitable) consumption of such a rare and valuable material must surely have been designed to impress. Perhaps the most famous example is the so-called mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae.
Gold, with its malleability and incorruptibility, has also been used in dental work for over 3000 years. The Etruscans in the 7th century BCE used gold wire to fix in place substitute animal teeth. As thread, gold was also woven into fabrics. Gold has also been used in medicine, for example, Pliny in the 1st century BCE suggests gold should be applied to wounds as a defence to ‘magic potions’.
The vibrant mix of the enlightenment of pure yellow and the joyfulness of orange produces the king of colors: gold. It is the natural birthstone color of those born in the magical month of midsummer (July 22–August 21). This is a time in the year when we rejoice in the energy of the sun and the growth it creates, which nourishes the body and the soul. The rays of a golden crystal fulfill us and give us the enthusiasm and excitement that make life a wonderful adventure.
Gold is traditionally the color of kings, riches, and the sun. It is all this and more. Gold is as close to a magical color as exists. It seems to touch a deep part of our minds, conjuring up images of mystical places, treasure, and adventure. We instinctively seek this color. It makes us feel rich, secure, and successful. It is the color of many symbols of power and wealth.
Gold is the color of adventure, success, and power. Gold is the color of the earth fully alive in midsummer. It is the ray of rarity, bespeaking richness and natural value. It enriches the spirit, warms us like yellow, and cheers us like orange. Gold is the high color, the crown of life. It is all life, sweet, warm—growing and reaching its peak. It is brilliant, sometimes blinding, but always tinged with awe and inspiration. Gold is exuberance.
In darker shades, the golden coloured crystals have a deeper and more pronounced sense of devotion and commitment, providing us with a mature enthusiasm and the ability to share a lifelong commitment of care and love. They provide us with the power to lead projects, organizations, and efforts to success. Most important, darker shades of gold are the ultimate power crystals. They exude authority, control, leadership, success, and influence.
Pale gold crystals offer us the power of toned-down exuberance—they are the crystals of happiness, cheerfulness, and contentment. Crystals that possess the light gold color ray provide us with the pleasure life can offer in simple things.
Silver had great value and aesthetic appeal in many ancient cultures where it was used to make jewellery, tableware, figurines, ritual objects and rough-cut pieces known as hacksilver which could be used in trade or to store wealth. The metal of choice to mint coinage for long periods, acquisition of silver mines in such places as Greece, Spain, Italy, and Anatolia was an important factor in many an ancient conflict. Easily mined, worked, reusable, and brilliantly shiny, silver was one of the few truly international commodities which both connected and divided the ancient world.
Classical Athens benefitted from hitting a huge new seam on Mt. Pangaeus in Thrace, and both Carthage and Rome had a ready supply form Iberian mines and those on Sardinia. Indeed, the Romans worked some 40,000 slaves in the silver mines of Spain. The Etruscans did not go without, either, for they had access to silver in the north of their territory in Italy. By the later Roman period, as the empire expanded, silver was extracted from Britain, Germany, and the Balkans. Traded as coinage with peoples in India in exchange for spices and luxury goods, it was then converted back into bullion.
Not as valuable as gold, silver was, nevertheless, used for much the same purposes but on a grander scale. Most ancient cultures benefitted from specialised craftsmen, often working for the royal household and given a dedicated area of the city to produce their shiny wonders. Jewellery, utensils, vessels, dishes, pepper castors, saucepans, figurines, masks, and decorative objects were made in silver. Silver, because of its high value, was widely used in objects related to religious rituals such as incense burners, relics containers, and votive offerings or dedications. Textiles were embroidered with silver thread, and items of clothing had pieces of silver sewn onto them. The metal was also widely used as an inlay material in such items as weapons, armour, furniture, and metal vessels.
One of the most common uses of silver throughout antiquity was as coinage. During the 6th century BCE, the first coins were minted in Lydia, which were made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, or of pure gold or pure silver. They were stamped with a design by the state as a mark of their authenticity and weight.
The first Greek coins appeared at Aegina c. 600 BCE (or even earlier), which were silver and used a turtle design as a symbol of the city’s prosperity based on maritime trade. Athens and Corinth soon followed Aegina’s lead. Heated discs of silver were hammered between two dies engraved with the designs. The birth of coinage in wider Greece, though, was not really an invention of convenience but a necessity, driven by the need to pay mercenary soldiers. These warriors required a convenient way to carry their wages, and the state needed a method of payment they could equally apply to everyone.
The first Roman silver coins were produced from the early 3rd century BCE and resembled contemporary Greek coins. C. 211 BCE a whole new coinage system was introduced. Appearing for the first time was the silver denarius (pl. denarii), a coin that would be the principal silver coin of Rome until the 3rd century CE. Following the acquisition of the silver mines in Macedonia from 167 BCE, there was a huge boom in silver coins from 157 BCE. Gradually, as emperors spent more frivolously and wars drained the state coffers, silver coins went from almost pure to 70% then 50% and on down until they reached an all-time low of just 2% silver content.
Silver crystals bring purpose, magic, and stillness. Much like pure white, silver is the color of the moon, the feminine, the night, introspection, the cyclic nature of life, coolness, stillness, magic, and ambiguity. Silver is known to enhance the powers of the moon and is excellent for use in energising other stones during the full and new moons.
Silver is a mirror, a reflection, and a path to the inner consciousness. Silver is a priestess to gold’s high priest. It is gray, but a reflective gray. It is lonely, altruistic, and aloof. It is a mystery. Silver can be used as a mirror to the soul, one to stimulate seeing oneself from outside of the body.
Silver crystals find patterns and the inner meanings of events. Use silver crystals and minerals for quiet meditation, finding your real purpose in life, and calm reflection on life’s meanings. Silver assists in increasing perception and helps to regulate emotional and intuitive energies. It provides for a very strong connection between the physical and astral bodies.
Silver, when used with gemstones, is able to both attract and retain those qualities which are emitted by the stone. The silver provides a steadying influence. It performs a balancing act by drawing negativity from the body while transferring the positive energies of other minerals.