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Prehistoric Gold Trade Route Discovered

Jun 05, 2015 08:15 PM EDT
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Evidence of a prehistoric gold trade route running between southwest UK and Ireland has recently been discovered, suggesting humans were trading gold between the two countries as far back as the early Bronze Age (2500BC).

Archaeologists at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, used a new technique to measure the chemical composition of some of the earliest gold artifacts in Ireland. It turns out that these objects weren't made from Irish gold, but rather imported gold. This told researchers that the Irish likely sourced their gold resources from outside the country, despite the fact that they had numerous local gold deposits.

"It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn't exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an 'exotic' origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production," lead author Dr. Chris Standish explained in a news release.

To test this theory, Standish and his colleagues studied gold samples from 50 early Bronze Age artifacts in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland, including basket ornaments, discs and lunula (necklaces). Using an advanced technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry, they measured isotopes of lead and compared them with the composition of gold deposits found in a variety of locations. Further analysis showed that the gold in the objects most likely originated from Cornwall, rather than Ireland - possibly extracted and traded as part of the tin mining industry.

"The results of this study are a fascinating finding. They show that there was no universal value of gold, at least until perhaps the first gold coins started to appear nearly two thousand years later," noted co-author Dr. Alistair Pike. "Prehistoric economies were driven by factors more complex than the trade of commodities."

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

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