Volume 7, September 2003, Section O033

The Oldest Gold in the World in a Varna Cenetery

Norman A. Rubin
Journalist, Indep. Scholar, Israel

An astonishing find of pure gold, the largest and oldest in the world uncovered in the cemetery of Varna, Bulgaria, exhibited at the Israel Museum some years ago, offered the public a glimpse into the remarkable prehistoric cultures of Europe, which until recently remained shrouded in darkness. The unique discovery of spiritual and material wealth explains why, some 6,500 years ago Varna became the birthplace of a European Chalcolithic civilization.

This exciting phase in Varna's history (4500-4000 BCE) has come to light due to the findings from the large cemetery from the Late Chalcolithic period over the last thirty years by Bulgarian archeologists.

The Varna cemetery was discovered accidentally in 1972 when a tractor digging a ditch unearthed shining yellow plates and green vessels, which turned out to be gold and copper objects from a grave. An emergency dig was organized immediately, and since then archaeologists, under the direction of Dr. H. Lazarov and Ivan Ivanov of the Varna Archaeological Museum, has been making new discoveries on the site.

The remains of thirteen settlements have been found in the area. The most important find is the cemetery, the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe - approx 10,000 square meters. The dead were buried in shrouds, with gold ornaments sewn into the cloth wrappings of the wealthy. In six graves no bodies were buried, but vast stores of gold and copper objects were found in three of the graves, including a number of stone and gold scepters. These were symbolic 'burials' with the gold objects indicating the status of the person commemorated. Three graves contained life-sized human faces, molded in unfired clay, with gold decoration, and, under the chin, gold amulets in the shape of women. These amulets, associated with pregnancy and childbirth, indicate that the 'burials' were those of females.

Among the hundred of graves uncovered at Varna, the most unusual was a grave containing the remains of a 45 year-old man. With 33 as the average life expectancy of men and 27 that of women, 45 were a very advance age indeed. He was more that 1.7-meter tall, also about average for the period, and had strong athletic body. In his hand, he held an axe made of soft stone with gold plated handle, clearly a sign of authority. Since this grave is also the richest excavated so far, it seems likely that it contained the body of a ruler or leading member of Varna society.

It is thanks to the important discoveries from the Varna cemetery that we are able to reconstruct the type of culture that existed in northeast Bulgaria some 6,500 to 6,000 years ago. The cemetery, located away from the settlements in accordance with local custom of this period, contained, side by side, the bodies of men, women, and children. The graves of men contained the largest number of funerary gifts, which may be an indication that men enjoyed a higher status than women in Varna society did. There is also a marked difference between the graves of richer and poorer people, providing evidence of class distinction.

Three important factors contributed to the development of this Late Chalcolithic society: a fully developed metallurgic technology; the enormous strides made in agriculture and the provision of food; and major advances in long-distance trade. Presumably, those involved in metallurgy had a higher social status and were thereby able to accumulate more wealth. Very quickly, a gap developed between the metal and agrarian workers, while, in time, merchants came to make up the middle class. Eventually this class-based society at Varna needed a ruler or rulers - and these were found buried in special graves, holding the insignia of their office in their skeletal hands.

The deep bay, along which the settlements of Varna were then situated, provided a comfortable harbor for ships sailing across the Black Sea. Clay models of boats found in Bulgaria show that shipbuilding was already extremely advanced in the Late Chalcolithic period, and that maritime trade, like overland commerce, was highly developed. During the warmer months, ships bearing raw materials and finished products also sailed down rivers leading from the Black Sea to the heart of the continent - as far as the banks of the Volga to the east, the settlements of the Danube to the west, and even the Mediterranean coast to the south. Owing to thriving international trade and significant advance in metallurgy, Varna became a prosperous trading center within a prominent economic and political zone.

The production of tools and vessels from stone, flint, bone, and clay, already highly refined, now gave way to the use of metals-namely gold and copper. Although the use of natural copper had begun during the earlier Chalcolithic period, the high point of the copper and gold industries dates to the time of the Varna community. Apparently this society was ripe for the developments required producing highly professional and sophisticated metal works.

"And a smith overlaid it with gold" (Isaiah 40:19). Gold has always been the much-coveted object of man's longing for wealth and beauty. The unique discovery of this material wealth, which has been buried for nearly 6,500 years along the shores of the Black Sea at Varna, Bulgaria, is a remarkable glimpse of man's desire for luxury items of this metal from ages past.

What is striking about the Varna cemetery is the splendor and variety of the gold objects discovered in the graves. The sheer amount of gold found is astonishing - a total weight of over six kilograms, comprising more than 38 different kinds of objects unique to Varna. The gold is very pure - (23.5 carat) and experts are still unable to agree on its source.

Although most of the artifacts were produced by heating and hammering the metal, new evidence suggest that some were molded, and even cast using the 'lost wax' technique. These advances in goldsmith were forgotten with the destruction of Varna civilization, and it would be another 2,000 years before gold objects were again crafted in the region.

There are only two areas in the world in which pre-urban societies made major advances in the production of gold and copper; southeast Europe and ancient Israel. This is very surprising, especially when one considers that there was no direct communication between the two regions, and that each one developed quite independently, employing markedly different techniques. Nonetheless, metallurgic development in southeast Europe and southern Israel did share some interesting common features.

In southern Israel, Chalcolithic society produced hundreds of artifacts made of arsenic and antimony copper, which, like bronze was durable and easy to work with. By using of this alloy, smiths were able to achieve results that were both technically and aesthetically quite astonishing. These ancient copper vessels and tools were molded using a lost wax technique so sophisticated that modern-day artisans have trouble reproducing the accomplishments of their prehistoric forerunners. Such objects were typical of the "Beersheba culture" and especially of the Nahal Mishmar treasure. The Chalcolithic gold objects found in the Nahal Qanah Cave comprise eight ring-shaped ingots, weighing a total of one kilogram, which were minted in a mold.

In Varna, artisans made highly sophisticated copper tools and weapons using stone molds. Goldsmiths produced decorative gold ornaments by means of complicated techniques that involved casting and often heating and hammering out the metal. The result was a wealth of diverse, high-quality gold objects.

These advanced metalworking techniques indicate that, in both Varna and southern Israel, society had developed to the point where certain groups could devote themselves entirely to metalcrafts, leaving others to tend to more immediate economic needs. A stratified society of this kind demanded the establishment of a central source of authority that would control large-scale operations, such as the production of metal artifacts.

Thus, in these two very different and geographically distant cultures - both centers of gold and copper craftsmanship - economic and industrial factors played an important role in the development of social structure. Moreover, in an interesting and enigmatic parallelism, the metallurgical knowledge and practices that had developed in both these ancient cultures were to be lost with the end of the Chalcolithic period.

The end of this prosperous, advance society came suddenly; some 6,000 years ago, climatic and geographic shifts raised the water levels in the Varna Bay, and the settlements along the shore were flooded. It would take hundreds of years before the Varna region would begin to develop once again...

This period also witnessed important developments in agriculture, including the introduction of irrigation and the use of domesticated beasts of burden and yoked oxen for plowing. Models of clay wheels from excavations indicate that carts were already in use at the time.

Copper objects found in the Varna cemetery are typical of that region, which suggests the existence of local copper workshops; however, these have not been located The copper vessels were cast in stone molds, apparently made of local graphite stone and used only once. It was generally men who produced the vessels, with different specialists involved in each stage of the process - refining the copper ore, making of the molds, casting, and forging the finished product.

Some 300 kilometers southwest of Varna (the Ai-Bunar archeological site), a cluster of eleven copper mines was discovered. These mines were already in use during the Chalcolithic period. Not far from these sites there were found settlements containing evidence of copper ore; it is possible that the process of extracting the copper from ore mined nearby took place in these settlements. The pure copper was then sent on to manufacturing centers near Varna.

1) Catalogue - "The Oldest Gold In the World - Varna, Bulgaria" Osnat Misch-Brandl, curator in charge, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1994.

It was also during this period that the practice of burying the dead in graveyards outside the bounds of residential areas was introduced. The new burial custom, which suggests a transformation in cultural and religious attitudes, raises certain questions. Were they afraid of the dead? Or wary of some sort of impurity? Unfortunately, we cannot be sure of answers, since prehistory provides us with only the testimony of mute objects, and not with written evidence...

2) Earliest Civilizations of the Near East - James Mellaart Edited by Professor Stuart Piggott - . Thames and Hudson, London.

It would seem that metal was known, justifying the term 'Chalcolithic' used for this period. (chalkos, copper - lithos, stone - Greek).

3) Archives - Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The burial objects in the Varna graves were consistently laid out in the following order; at the head of the body, two or three clay vessels (which no doubt contained the food the deceased would need in his afterlife); on the face and chest, ornaments, and along the length of arms various flint instruments.

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