The Mystery and Intrigue of the Oldest Gold in the World
How a treasure from before the dawn of civilization changes the human story
Before the Roman Empire left hordes of coins across the Mediterranean and the wider world. Before Alexander, Sargon, or Gilgamesh. Before the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid. Before the farmers of Neolithic Britain raised Stonehenge. Before even writing or the wheel, on the Black Sea coast of modern Bulgaria, there was hierarchy, as evidenced by the greatest treasure of the Copper Age by a mile and the details of the graves in which it was discovered.
Before 1972, there’d been less than one pound’s worth of gold artifacts from the Copper Age found anywhere in the world. And then the Varna gold — over 14 pounds’ worth of 3,000 different gold artifacts — was found in an ancient graveyard near the city of Varna. Researchers estimated the finds to be 6,500 years old, originating from the newly-named Varna culture of about 4600–4200 BC.
The only way to express this age is “immense”. It’s older than the very first cities. It’s older than almost any existent language family or human culture. It’s from a Europe so distant that practically nothing remains from it today. A few symbols, maybe, might outdate it. Maybe some of our oldest and now most convoluted mythological stories retain a few grains from its time. Really only the most basic practices remain; hunting, cooking, fire-starting, burying the dead, wearing jewelry and the like.
People at this time were at a crucial turning point, at which they were only for the first time addressing a need for a formal, organized division of labor. Metalworking was not woodworking or stone knapping; it took such specialized skills and such incredible amounts of time that it necessitated an entire class of people dedicated to it. Following from that came the need for others to feed this new, non-food-producing, metalworking class. And from that came the need for others still to wield the power to manage and enforce this class division.
The Varna gold isn’t just an early site with great treasure. It’s the earliest site in the world to provide concrete evidence for social hierarchy in the whole historical record.