Iron Age goldsmith retooled

Tomb offers insights into craft of ancient jewelry making

A goldsmith’s toolkit, discovered in the tomb of a craftsman and warrior who lived 2,400 years ago, provides the first detailed look at gold-jewelry making from a culture renowned for such ornaments. The man’s grave, excavated in 1986 at an ancient cemetery in southeastern Spain, contained 50 specialized gold-working tools, say archaeologists Alicia Perea of the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales in Madrid and Barbara Armbruster of the University of Toulouse in France.

DECORATIVE AIRS Two bronze blowpipes (left) found in an Iron Age tomb allowed a goldsmith to heat and soften gold alloy in order to apply elaborate designs. Dies (right) were used to stamp sheets of precious metals. A. Perea, B. Armbruster

Elements of the ancient toolkit include two bronze blowpipes that were used to direct heat at gold alloy, softening it so that designs could be made with gold wire and drops of gold, the researchers report in the March Antiquity. Some jewelers today use similar blowpipes, Perea and Armbruster say. Among other toolkit finds were ornamental punches, chisels and a tweezers with pointed ends, probably used for arranging gold wire and drops into patterns.

Based on other items placed in the tomb, Perea and Armbruster suspect that the buried man belonged to a warrior class that controlled production of gold treasures among Iron Age Iberians, a set of loosely related peoples that inhabited the Iberian peninsula. No ordinary goldsmith, this man was interred with a set of dies — used to stamp sheets of gold and silver — that displayed images symbolizing the renewal of life and power.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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