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World’s Oldest Gold Object May Have Just Been Unearthed in Bulgaria

A small gold bead shows that Copper Age people in the Balkans were processing gold 6,500 years ago

Excavations at Tell Yunatsite, Bulgaria (Balkan Heritage Foundation)
smithsonian.com

Yes, diamonds are eternal, but processed gold has only been with us since about 4,500 B.C. At least that's the time period to which archaeologists are dating an eighth of an inch gold bead uncovered in Bulgaria. The tiny ornament is believed to be the oldest bit of processed gold ever discovered in Europe, and likely in the world, reports Angel Krasimiov at Reuters.

The bead is thought to predate the previous oldest gold objects, the Varna Gold, which as Andrew Curry writes for Smithsonian Journeys, is a cache of gold found in a necropolis outside the Black Sea port of VarnaBetween 1972 and 1991, archaeologists found 13 pounds of gold artifacts buried in the necropolis. The Varna cache is something of mystery. The inhabitants of the region were believed to farmers who migrated out of the Anatolia Peninsula just a few centuries previously. How they were able to master the smelting of copper and gold in that short span of time is still not understood. This new bead pushes their mastery of metal working back another 200 years if the dating pans out.

“I have no doubt that it is older than the Varna gold,” Yavor Boyadzhiev, a professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Science in charge of the dig, tells Krasimiov. “It’s a really important discovery. It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history.”

The bead was discovered about two weeks ago at a dig site called Tell Yunatsite near the modern town of Pazardzhik, much further inland than Varna. Boyadzhiev says the settlement was a very sophisticated town, perhaps the first urban settlement in Europe. He believes the bead was likely manufactured on site. Researchers have also found hundreds of ceramic bird figurines at the site, probably used in some sort of religious worship. The settlement was also protected by a nine-foot-tall wall, though the town was likely destroyed by invaders around 4,100 B.C.

Tell Yunatsite has been excavated since the 1970s, and, along with the Varna necropolis, is part of an emerging “lost” Balkan Copper-age civilization. Researchers believe it had extensive trading networks, industrialized metal production for the first time in history and may have even created the world’s earliest known written scripts, should the symbols found on the Votive Tablet from the village of Gradeshnitsa be considered a form of writing.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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