Ancient gold shows prehistoric trading route existed between Cornwall and Ireland, say experts

By Ben Miller | 05 June 2015

Prehistoric economies were partly driven by belief systems, says survey of imported gold in Irish collections

A photo of a circular gold coin from a museum collection against a brown background
© National Museum of Ireland
Laser samples on 50 early Bronze Age artefacts show that gold could have been traded between south-west England and Ireland in 2500 BC, according to archaeologists inspecting chemicals in some of the earliest treasures ever discovered across the Celtic Sea.

Isotopes of lead in basket ornaments, discs and necklaces held at the Museum of Ireland came from imported gold, most likely to have originated from Cornwall and been extracted as part of the region’s tin mining industry.

“This is an unexpected and particularly interesting result,” says Dr Chris Standish, the University of Southampton leader of the study.

“It suggests that Bronze Age gold workers in Ireland were making artefacts out of material sourced from outside of the country, despite the existence of a number of easily-accessible and rich gold deposits found locally.

“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.”

Gold was often associated with supernatural powers and systems of belief in some ancient societies.

“Perhaps what is most interesting is that during this time, compared to Ireland, there appears to be much less gold circulating in Cornwall and southern Britain,” observes Dr Standish.

“This implies gold was leaving the region because those who found it felt it was of more value to trade it in for other ‘desirable’ goods, rather than keep it.”

Dr Alistair Pike, a co-author on the findings, says the results are “fascinating”.

“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,” he points out.

“Prehistoric economies were driven by factors more complex than the trade of commodities – belief systems clearly played a major role.”

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Gold was a by-product if Tin mining.
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