Monday, 22 August 2011

Ancient American Mysteries in Gold

Again the photos for this article were not acceptable for posting. The photos attached, we took in Costa Rica 2008.

Ancient American Mysteries in Gold

Although treasures have been found, the processes are unsolved

A. Hyatt Verrill

From The Sun; Aug 21, 1932; The Baltimore Sun, supplied by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle August 2011

FROM archaeological expeditions in various sections of Mexico, Central and South America brief news items have come in recent weeks telling of the finding of ancient treasures left by the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas and other highly cultured American races of the past.

From burial mounds in Mexico marvelous ornaments of gold, jadeite, crystal and semiprecious stones were obtained recently by archaeologists of the National Museum of Mexico City. Specimens of Incan and pre-Incan handiwork have been found during the last few months by members of the Tiahuanaco expedition of the American Museum of Natural History from New York city.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition to Guatemala has unearthed many remarkable examples of ancient Mayan work, and from Salvador comes word that an archaeological expedition in that country has discovered the tomb of an ancient chieftain, with his throne of carved orangewood and priceless ornaments and insignia of gold and gems. And only last year reports from Guatemala told of the discovery of the grave of an ancient king whose body was incased in a casket of beaten gold.

Probably no races in the world were richer in the precious metal than were the aborigines of middle and South America before the Spanish Conquest. Although the conquerors looted the natives of incredible fortunes in gold, silver and jewels, they obtained but a fifth of the gold, for far more of the yellow metal rests in tombs and graves of departed chieftains and nobles than in the temples and palaces of the living. And although from time to time these buried treasures are found—by both archaeologists and professional treasure-seekers—unquestionably millions of dollars worth of wrought gold still remain in the countless burial places of the ancient Americans.


the aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas and many of the less civilized races of ancient America were all masters of the goldsmith's art. And not only were they familiar with all the methods of gold and silver work employed by Europeans; in addition, they possessed a knowledge of several processes entirely unknown to the rest of the world and which today are lost arts.

Although the Spaniards were lured to the conquest of Mexico and Peru by tales of gold in possession of the natives, they were astounded at the vast quantities of precious metals which they found. And while gold to them meant only riches, and while they were far from susceptible to mere beauty or artistry, even the rough, materialistic soldiers could not refrain from expressing their amazement at the intricate and marvelous workmanship of the objects they found. Rarely, however, did the loveliness or the artistic merits of these objects prevent them from being cast into the melting pot. As a result, very few examples of the Mayan, Aztecan or Incan gold and silver work taken by the Spaniards have been preserved.


the precious metals received as the ransom for Atahualpa amounted to more than $15,000,000, and while a large portion of this was in the form of bars, ingots and plates, there were great quantities of ornamental and decorative pieces, sacred emblems and idols which caused even the hardened Pizarro to indulge in rhapsodies. But the bulk of these objects was ruthlessly melted down. We may obtain some idea of the quantity of these specimens of the goldsmith's art by the fact that it required fifty native goldsmiths, laboring steadily for thirty days, to reduce the treasures to bullion.

Yet all this was but a small fraction of the gold possessed by the Incas. The most magnificent of their golden objects were those in the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco, which were concealed by the bearers of the precious burden when, en route to Cajamarca with their ransom for the Inca, they learned of Pizarro's treachery and the murder of Atahualpa. None of this stupendous quantity of gold and silver, the boullion value of which has been estimated at $150,000,000, has ever been discovered.


many tales have been told regarding the wonders of the Temple of the Sun, and so incredible, are some of these that they have been thought, by some to have been fanciful or exaggerated. But there is documentary proof of the truth of these stories, for in a letter written by a priest—the Fray Alonzo Martinez—who was sent by Pizarro to Cuzco to learn just what was there, the padre describes the contents of the temple as follows:

Above, the great altar was the image of Inti (the sun god) in the form of an enormous disk with a human face cut upon a thick plate of gold. Above the circle projected rays of the same metal, ending in stars of silver. To the right of this image of the sun was that of his woman, the sacred moon, figured with the face of a woman cut upon a plate of heavy silver and whose crown ended in gold stars . . . To one side and the other of the portico of the temple were the twelve chuquthuancos of gold; which were life-sized statues of the Incas who had gone before. The twelfth door of the temples gave entrance to the sacred garden, truly a jewel wonder, wherein, in fantastic communion, were encountered five fountains of gold surrounded by flowers, grass, plants, trees, birds, butterflies, lizards, crawling things and a great diversity of fruits and animals, all of gold and jewels, as well as a great quantity of utensils and implements of silver. The walls of the temple were overlaid with sheets of gold and the ceiling was studded with gold stars. The cornices of the twelve doors and of the windows were of gold, and on the upper part or the temple was a band of gold a yard in width that embraced all the temple—and the mummies of the dead emperors were seated in stone chairs encrusted with gold plates. Moreover, within the last few years several of the golden plates which covered the temple have been found where, apparently, they were dropped and overlooked when the walls were stripped of their golden overlay. Also, the recess in the masonry, which once held the golden band, is still visible. Finally, a few specimens of objects such as those that were in the marvelous temple garden have been discovered. Among these are insects, reptiles and birds of gold; golden ears of maize with husks of silver and a few gold and silver flowers.

But as yet no one has discovered the hiding place of the gold images of the dead Incas and other treasures, although the original golden sun that Fray Alonzo says was above the altar was found in Cuzco when excavations were being made at the Cusi Pampa (plaza) forty years after the Conquest. The Viceroy Toledo was so charmed by the beauty and rarity of this sacred emblem that he penned a letter to the King of Spain, telling of the find and saying that the image (which was shipped to Spain) was such a beautiful specimen of the goldsmith's art, that he prayed it might he preserved intact. Obviously, however, the Spanish monarch regarded the priceless specimen merely as so much gold, and had it melted down.


almost the equal of the Cuzco treasures in value and beauty were those at the Temple of Pachakamak, the immeasurably ancient sacred city near Lima. In fact, it was the tales of the gold at Pachakamak which lured Pizarro to the conquest of Peru, for he never heard of Cuzco until he met Atahualpa.

Unfortunately for the Dons, word of their avariciousness reached the holy city ahead of them, so that when they arrived practically every object of precious metal had been hidden by the priests. Yet so much remained and was secured by Hernando Pizarro and his raiders that they actually shod their horses with silver and gold!

In Mexico, Cortez and his followers found nearly as much gold as Pizarro did in Peru, but unlike Pizarro, who was an illiterate swineherd, Cortez was an intelligent, educated aristocrat with a fine sense of the artistic and the beautiful. He so fully appreciated the art of the Aztec goldsmiths that he preserved many specimens and sent them intact to Spain. Very few of these are now in existence, and our only real knowledge of the goldsmith's art in ancient Mexico is derived from the descriptions left by Cortez and his comrades and the examples which from time to time have been discovered in graves, tombs, caves and ruined temples.


among the tales which Pizarro heard from the lips of the natives of Panama and which fired him with desire to conquer Peru, were stories of the Incas eating and drinking from vessels of solid gold. That these tales were neither fiction nor exaggerations we may be certain, for innumerable plates, jars, jugs, cups and other dishes and utensils of gold have been found in Peru. In the American Museum of Natural History in New York city, there are a number of jars, carafes and plates of solid gold, all of which were found in one locality in Northern Peru. These are of thin, hammered or beaten metal and, while beautifully made, are not particularly ornate nor elaborately decorated. But in the burial mounds of Chan-Chan, the ancient, ruined capital of the Chimu race, are found wonderful vases, cups and utensils of gold, silver and of an alloy of the two metals. These, although of hammered metal, are elaborately chased or ornamented with repousse work, while many have designs in open work.

This ancient city of Chan-Chan was extremely rich in gold and silver, although the Spanish conquerors secured practically no treasure there. But during the years 1576 and 1592 a single man; Don Alonzo Gutierrez Nieto; secured gold and silver objects worth more than $2,000,000 from a single burial, mound near Chan-Chan, as is recorded in the treasury accounts of Peru.


as a general rule, the Incan, pre-Incan, Aztecan and Mayan gold work was of a decorative, ceremonial or religious character rather than utilitarian. Gold had no intrinsic value to these ancient races, and for ordinary purposes silver or bronze was far superior to gold. But gold was the most ductile and easily worked of metals; it did not corrode and, most important of all, its color was symbolical of the sun.

Hence in Peru, the use of golden utensils was restricted to the ruling Incas, the priests of the sun and the nobility, although jewelry and gold ornaments were in almost universal use. And it is in these everyday ornamental objects that we find the greatest variety and best examples of the ancient Peruvian goldsmith's art. Miniature llamas and alpacas in both gold and silver are fairly common.

Brooches, pins, rings, bracelets and anklets, earrings and earplugs, chains and breastplates are all found in tombs and graves with the mummified bodies of their owners, and many of these items are marvelous examples of artistic craftsmanship. Spherical beads of very fine filigree work, beads elaborately chased and carved, and chains of intricately formed links are common, especially in Southern Peru, while in Ecuador there have been found innumerable gold beads so small that they are indistinguishable as beads to the unaided eye. In fact, when these were first discovered in the bed of a stream they were mistaken for grains of virgin gold. Imagine the astonishment of the finders when, upon examining the supposed grains under a lens they were revealed as perfect beads, each perforated and chased. Many of them were composed of several minute spheres soldered together to form grapelike clusters, the whole not larger than the head of a pin and perforated through the center!

A number of these almost microscopic gold beads are on exhibition in the Museum of the American Indian in New York city, where they are displayed under powerful lenses. How the ancient goldsmiths ever managed to construct, drill and engrave, such minute objects is a mystery unless we assume that they possessed a knowledge of lenses made from quartz or other transparent crystals.


even more of a mystery, perhaps, are the many gold-plated objects which have been found in and near Chan-Chan in Peru. These utensils and ornaments of copper, bronze and silver, as heavily and perfectly coated with gold as though they had been electroplated, have never been explained. Various theories have been advanced in regard to the method employed. Some have suggested plating with an amalgam, others have claimed that the gold was rubbed or burnished onto the baser metals, and still others have argued that the objects were dipped into molten gold.

But none of these theories fits the conditions and cases. Amalgam plating is not lasting, yet these plated objects have endured for countless centuries; in addition, the coating of gold is thicker than could have been produced by the use of amalgam. Moreover, we have no evidence that these ancient metal workers possessed any knowledge of mercury or its properties.


then there is the fact that many of the beads are as perfectly plated on the inner surfaces of the perforations as on the exterior. Gold could be neither rubbed nor burnished into the metal in such places, nor could a thick, even coating of gold be thus applied. The molten gold theory must be cast aside, as the bronze and silver objects are often composed of such thin metal that they would melt instantly if plunged into a bath of molten gold. And, most important of all, several objects have been found which are composed of gold-plated earthenware!

The only explanation that appears tenable is that the Chan-Chan goldsmiths possessed a knowledge of some unknown chemical reagents or else plated the objects by fuming them over some preparation, containing gold, which rendered the metal volatile and capable of being deposited by condensation. At all events, we can safely say that the process is a lost art.

Also, in connection with this mystery, I would call attention to the spherical beads and bells, found at Chan-Chan, and also in Central America, which—whether of copper, gold or silver—are composed of metal scarcely as thick as ordinary writing paper. It does not seem possible that these extremely thin-shelled spheres were cast, and they positively were not hammered or beaten out. It is another unsolved, puzzle.


in many localities, as in Costa Rica, Panama and elsewhere, very beautiful golden ornaments and other objects found in the ancient graves present puzzles almost as insoluble as the processes employed by the ancient Peruvians. Among these objects we find some made of hammered gold, others of filigree work, others of cut and carved gold, still others of cast gold and many in which all these methods are combined. Among the cast objects are numerous hollow figures and spherical bells, the latter with perfectly spherical gold tongues cast inside.

Although in a general way the gold and silver work of the Aztecs and the Mayas, as well as that of the less cultured races of Central America and of the Incas, was similar in type and workmanship; each was distinctive in character, in design, in artistic expression and in details.


among the Aztecs the personal ornaments and jewelry were more ornate and elaborate than with the Incan races, the latter favoring broad, smooth surfaces and bold designs of a decidedly modernistic character, whereas the Mexican, races preferred cast metal, linked pendants, tiny balls and chains, intricate designs of realistic form and objects of filigree. The Aztec goldsmiths were the most expert of all ancient Americans in fine filigree—an art that still flourishes in Mexico and Yucatan. Among the Chibchas of Columbia platinum was used quite extensively, and alloys of this metal and gold are quite common.

Many persons are under the impression that because the Incas, the Aztecs and other faces possessed such vast quantities of gold they must have had a knowledge of exceedingly rich mines or placers which have become "lost." This, however, does not necessarily follow. It must be borne in mind that gold is practically indestructible, and that the gold in possession of these peoples never left their countries and represented the accumulation of thousands of years. Thousands of Indians, laboring day after day, will produce a very large quantity of gold in the course of many years, even though the source of the metal might carry such a small quantity to the cubic yard that it would not be worth working by present-day methods.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.