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Gold During the Primitive Period

(5000 B.C. - 600 B.C.)

"And the gold of that land is good."

Genesis 2:12

Gold was probably the first metal known to the early hominids that, on finding it as nuggets and spangles in the soils and stream sands, were undoubtedly attracted by its intrinsic beauty, great malleability, and virtual indestructibility. As tribal development progressed through the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic ages, and as people congregated into civilized centers, the metal appears to have taken on a sacred quality because of its enduring character (immortality), being worn initially probably as amulets and later fashioned into religious objects (idols). By the time of the early Indus (Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, etc.), Sumerian, and Egyptian civilizations (3000-2000 B.C.) gold had not only retained its sacred quality but had become the symbol of wealth and social rank (the royal metal). Homer (c. 1000 B.C.), in the Iliad and Odyssey, the epic poems of ancient Greece, mentions gold repeatedly both as a sign of wealth among mortals and as a symbol of splendour among the immortals.

Early references to the first discovery of gold are essentially legendary or mythical. Thus, Cadmus, the Phoenician, is said by some early writers to have discovered gold; others say that Thoas, a Taurian king, first found the precious metal in the Pangaeus Mountains in Thrace. The Chronicum Alexandrinum (A.D. 628) ascribes its discovery to Mercury (Roman god of merchandise and merchants), the son of Jupiter, or to Pisus, king of Italy, who, quitting his own country went into Egypt. Similar legends and myths concerning the initial discovery of gold are extant in the ancient literature of the Hindus (the Vedas) as well as in that of the ancient Chinese and other peoples. In fact, the discovery of the element we call gold is lost in antiquity.

The principal source of gold in primitive times was undoubtedly stream placers, although there is considerable evidence in certain gold belts (e.g., Egypt and India (Kolar)) that eluvial deposits, auriferous gossans, and the near surface parts of friable (oxidized) veins were mined. The eluvial and alluvial placers were worked in the crudest manner by panning or the simplest form of sluicing.

The auriferous gossans and exposed parts of friable veins were simply grubbed out, gophered, trenched, or pitted along their strike length with the crudest of tools-stone hammers, antler picks, and bone and wooden shovels. Only rarely were adits, simple shafts, and drifts attempted and then only in the soft rocks of the zone of oxidation. Fire-setting was probably employed by the ancient Egyptians, Semites, Indians, and others to break up the hard quartz veins, although there is only limited evidence to support this contention. Size or grade of deposit made little difference; both small and large deposits that showed free gold visibly or in the pan were worked, a circumstance permitted by the low cost of maintenance of slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war who were assigned by those in authority to the gold placers and mines.


Early references to the geology, mining, and metallurgy of gold appear in ancient Egyptian codes, on stelae, and in pictograms and inscriptions in the tombs of the Pharaohs. In the code of Menes (c. 3100 B.C.), founder of the first Egyptian dynasty, it was decreed that "one part of gold is equal to two and one half parts of silver in value," an indication of the marked abundance of gold and the relative scarcity of silver at the time. The inscription in the temple at Edfu, Egypt, depicting an epistle to Seti I (nineteenth dynasty, c. 1320 B.C.) from the Sun God reads, "I have given thee the gold countries: given thee what is in them of electrum, lapis lazuli, and malachite". A citation recording the extensive prospecting and mining for gold carried out by Seti I in Egypt, Nubia, and Sinai.

The most ancient geological map known, the famous "La carte des mines d'or" in the Turin Museum, is a Rameside papyrus and fragments depicting a gold mining region active about the time of Seti I (c. 1320 B.C.). On it, are located roads, miners' houses, gold mines, quarries, auriferous mountains, and so on. The exact site shown on the map is problematical. Some authors have suggested the mines represented are those of the Wadi Kareim or the Wadi Hammamat, on the Qena-Qoseir road (Gardiner, 1914). Ball (1942) and Derry (1951) say that the area represented on the map is the Wadi Fawakhir in which the El Sid gold mine is situated.

The ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian civilizations utilized gold extensively, but their sources of the precious metal are relatively uncertain. Placers in the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were probably the principal source, although acquisition through trade with the early civilizations of Arabia, Iran (Elam), the Oxus, Altai Mountains, and India cannot be ruled out. The ancient civilizations of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and others of the Indus Valley also knew and used gold, its source being probably placers in the upper reaches of the Indus River and its various tributaries or through trade with the ancient peoples of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and northern, eastern, and southern India.

References to gold and gold mining are numerous in the Old Testament of the Hebrews. In fact, gold is the first metal mentioned in the Hexateuch, which includes Genesis, the narrative of which was probably first cast into written form in the tenth century B.C.. Six sources of gold are mentioned in the Old Testament (Havilah, Ophir, Sheba, Midian, Uphaz, and Parvaim); the exact locations of all six are problematical and have given rise to much speculation.
Some authorities claim that all six sources are Arabian; others have suggested locations much farther a field.

In Genesis 2:10-12 (All biblical quotations are from the authorized King James version of the Holy Bible, edition of 1611, or from the Vulgate edition in the case of the Books of the Maccabees.) it is written: "And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
And the gold of that land is good: there is berillium and the onyx stone."

There has been much speculation as to the location of the land of Havilah, the most probable from a geological viewpoint being that the river Pison is the modern Coruh, which drains into the Black Sea near Batumi, and that Havilah is the Pontic gold-field near Trabzon, Turkey. This field is also probably one of the sites where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece, because within historical times placer miners used sheep's fleeces in this and other fields to catch the gold in their crude sluices. Another location often suggested is a site north of the ancient site of Babylon between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The statement in Genesis that the gold was "good," probably meaning relatively pure, suggests a placer source for the metal. No placers, so far as can be ascertained, ever existed near Babylon, although it should be remarked that placers may have been worked near the headwaters of both the Euphrates and Tigris in the mountainous areas of Armenia (eastern Turkey). Of these various locations the Pontic gold-field would seem to be the more probable location of Havilah.

There has also been much speculation as to the location of Ophir, the fabulously rich land of gold from which King Solomon's Phoenician (Tharshish) navy brought large amounts of the metal (some 34 metric tons) to his kingdom. In Genesis 10 it is associated with Havilah and Seba; the former, as just noted, was probably the Pontic gold-field on the south shore of the Black Sea, a location that may account for the long period of time, some three years, to make the voyage from Ezion-geber at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba to Ophir and back (I Kings 10:22). The cargos mentioned - aimug (sandalwood) trees, precious stones, ivory, apes, and peacocks - suggest circumnavigation of Africa.

Tharshish or Tarshish (a region centered on Cadiz) suggests that the gold may have come from Spain, and specifically from the oxidized deposits of the Huelva region where the modern mining town of Tharsis, often equated with Tarshish, is located. Supportive evidence is found in the first book of the Maccabees (I Mace. 8:1-3) that mentions the gold and silver mines of Spain. Other possibilities are East Africa, principally Zimbabwe and specifically the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, where some think King Solomon's mines and metallurgical plants were located. Still other possibilities suggested for the site of King Solomon's mines are southern Turkey (Taurus Mountains), northwest Saudi Arabia (the land of the ancient Midians and possibly the Eldorado of the Hebrews), Sudan (ancient Nubia; Nub means gold in ancient Egyptian), Altai (Purington, 1903), Ethiopia (along the coast between ancient Adulis and Bab el Mandeb, whose natives called themselves Aphates, India (possibly the Kolar region), Cuba, Peru, the Far East (particularly Japan), Arctic Canada, and a hundred other places. The story of Ophir is well told by Rickard (1932) and Sutherland (1969). The history of the ancient Zimbabwian (Rhodesian) gold mines and of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe is related in fascinating detail by Summers (1969).

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This document is in the public domain.

March, 2011