Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Who ate all the gold?

Now back, and catching up on my podcasts, I was enjoying the ever-reliable BBC More or Less on the subject of how much gold there is in the world. The answer, apparently, is that no-one has the faintest idea: the estimates vary wildly. Even some of the apparent certainties stated in the programme don't seem to be to stand up: notably the claim that 'all the gold that has been mined throughout history is still in existence in the above-ground stock'.

I'm not just talking about buried treasure, though I confess to having always enjoyed the possibility that Alaric the Visigoth may have had half the gold of the ancient world buried with him in the bed of the Busento in 410. The programme referred to the use of tiny quantities of gold in modern electronics - quantities so small as to be effectively unrecyclable and therefore irrecoverable - as a novelty. Which of course it is. But exactly the same thing applies to one of the common medieval uses of gold: the decoration of food with gold leaf. I've eaten gold leaf myself at a fascinating session on medieval food we held at Durham a few years back. (It doesn't really taste of anything.) Gold leaf can be made so thin that it doesn't use much of the stuff. And it is the ultimate form of conspicuous consumption. But once gold has entered the food chain, I don't think it's coming back.

So the ancient world's gold didn't get buried, or stolen, or exaggerated. We just scoffed it.

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