Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Origins - Technology

Some of the most important descriptions of the processes behind mining and forming gold pieces come from early European witnesses of the cultures. The first book on Pre-Columbian metallurgy was written in 1640 on Peruvian technologies and the most important early source on these processes, known as the Florentine Codex, was written on gold working technologies in Mexico. Along with these sources we can gain insight into the technological origins of metal works through archaeological evidence and by examining the objects themselves.

Most gold was obtained from the earth through “placer mining,” basically the process later used by gold miners in California in the 1800s. In this method, pans were placed in rivers and once the gravel was picked out, gold nuggets would remain. Gold would also be mined from the veins in rocks, as well as various other mining techniques. Although large amounts of gold were present in the area, great variation existed regarding quality of the gold and content of other materials such as silver and copper. Once mined, the gold had to be worked. The first step was to hammer nuggets into flat sheets and attempt to work with these sheets. However, this process was not the most effective and made the gold brittle and easily breakable. To address this issue the process known as “annealing” was introduced. This involved heating the gold until it became malleable enough to hammer and shape. This had to be done just right or else, if kept in the fire too long, the metal would melt. The earliest successful pieces made through this technology arose in northern Peru. From this point, technologies became more complex with the invention of casting, alloying and gilding. This particular gold piece, however, was created using the annealing and hammering process and would not have required such advanced knowledge.

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