Times & Places

Gold in the Ancient Mediterranean

Gold is an inert metal which does not corrode on contact with dirt, air, or chemicals, unlike iron and silver. As a shining material that does not decay or tarnish, it has been prized by people all over the world. Among the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans, valuable gold jewelry was often buried with the dead in tombs. The Dallas Museum of Art's collection of classical jewelry, much of which was left in tombs or graves, has been little damaged over several thousand years.

Many deposits of gold are found in the Mediterranean world, from the South Caucasus to the Iberian Peninsula. Gold is the only metal that occurs naturally in recognizable quantity and form. It is probably one of the first known metals, as it is easily identified by its weight and color. Alluvial, or placer, gold is found in rivers where it has washed downstream after eroding from veins of quartz. In ancient times both the reef gold found in quartz, and alluvial gold were extracted with a sluicing apparatus; running water was used to separate the heavier substance from the river sands and gravels or from the crushed quartz lodes.

No other metal is as malleable and ductile. Gold is highly resistant to acids and alkali, does not corrode, and is chemically inactive. In its natural state gold is seldom found pure, but is usually alloyed with silver and copper, which affect its color and physical properties. Melting temperatures, for example, are affected by the amounts of impurities contained in alloys. Silver is almost always found mixed with gold in an alloy called electrum that can contain 20 percent or more of silver.

Because of the developing sophistication of the goldsmith's art, the refining of gold became increasingly necessary. Impurities could be removed from the metal in several ways. In the cupellation method, lead was added to the gold allloy; the mixture was heated in a clay crucible; and the lead and other base metals were blown onto the walls of the crucible by a current of air, leaving a mixture of gold and silver. The silver was then removed by one of several methods. Salt and organic material could be added to the gold-silver alloy and the mixture heated in a crucible. The silver would react with the salt and was absorbed by the crucible as silver chloride. Alternatively, the gold-silver alloy could be heated with sulfur. The silver would convert to silver sulfide, which was skimmed from the surface of the molten metal.

The DMA's collection of ancient gold jewelry includes over 130 pieces, ranging in time from Greek and Etruscan works of the 7th century B.C.E onward, to the height of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century C.E.

Adapted from

  • DMA unpublished material, Gallery text, Cecil and Ida Green Galleries, transcribed November 3, 2016.
  • Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, with contributions from Anne R. Bromberg and John Dennis, Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art__ (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996), 19-20.