Gold is in the eye of the beholder

Urusula M. Franklin


One of the intentions of this paper is to remember Cyril Stanley Smith and his profound contributions to the fields of Art History and the Science of Ancient Materials.

In approaching the subject I will attempt to ask the type of questions that Cyril would have asked and look in the directions, he would have looked at, for my answers. While the subject matter of the symposium is gilding , one needs to begin by looking at the three distinctly different faces of gold.

Cyril would have reminded us that gold is beautiful and stable; as metals go, it is easy to work and shape. Those attributes make gold precious and an expression of wealth and status. Thus gold is a joy to look at, a joy to work with and a joy to own.

Some of us may have been too strongly influenced, if not brain washed, by classical tales about Archimedes, Midas or Knossos, the golden calf or the golden fleece with their emphasis on the preciousness and value of gold, to appreciate fully the importance of the colour of gold per se.

By distinguishing between the gold making (aurifaction) activities of Chinese chemists and their attempts at gold faking (aurifiction) Joseph Needham has stressed that the making of articles or surfaces of the colour of gold in new ways was not intended to deceive, but was meant to add to the repertoire of colour in and on materials.

There are cultures in which the colour of gold and its stability were the main attractions of the metal, and its preciousness, its ‘monetary’ value and the possible dimensions of deceit and faking may be later interpretation and constructs.

The high surface tension of liquid gold, the ductility of the solid metal and its ability to fuse and alloy allows much artistic scope.

But over and above the admiration of the accomplishments of those who worked with gold, the study of the use of gold and gilding in antiquity and the ways in which gold was incorporated into the spectrum of material treatment and use can serve as an indicator of a much more general approach to culture-specific materials utilisation.

To illustrate the material-specific and diagnostic aspect of gold and gilding, the paper will look at its features in (1) ancient China, (2) Meso-america, (3) Java and (4) Carthage.

The Han pictorial bronzes as well as the decorative horse fittings of the period will illustrate the use of gold inlay as a “thread of colour” in the presence of silver and unalloyed copper in the surfaces of these artifacts. The virtual absence of gold jewellery in ancient China will be discussed in the context of materials choices for personal adornment in this culture.

Meso-american practices and techniques of gilding and alloying will be interpreted as techniques and approaches derived from and materially related to the dominant role of textiles and their making within the materials culture of this realm. the conceptual and process relationships between some of the gilding and dying techniques will be stressed.

A similar relationship between textile and gold objects and techniques can be shown in objects from ancient Java, that the author was able to examine.

Detailed study of punic objects from the Museum of Carthage showed the gold objects, previously assumed to be solid cast gold, to be mainly gold foil over lead or plaster-type cores. Some of the ramification of this as yet unpublished work will be discussed.

Finally, the question of gold wire, in the broadest sense of the term, its origin and its possible role in the history of wire making will be raised – though not answered.

1995 | St. Paul | Volume 3