Cornell University archaeologist Andrew Ramage was a Harvard University graduate student when he struck gold at an excavation site in Sardis, Turkey, in 1968. Ramage's detective work led to a one-of-a-kind discovery: a gold refinery that belonged to legendary Lydian emperor King Croesus, the world's first "millionaire." The finding was hailed around the world at the time and proved a major public relations coup for the Cornell-Harvard Sardis expedition, of which Ramage was a member. But the final chapter on the subject stubbornly eluded completion -- until now.
Recently released, King Croesus' Gold: Excavations at Sardis and the History of Gold Refining (distributed by Harvard University Press) is the definitive text, if not the final word, on this singular event and its historical implications.
"It's a great relief to have more than 30 years of work finally documented, but our active role is far from over," said Ramage, director of the Intercollege Program in Archaeology at Cornell. "I expect our work to produce a great many queries from people with interests in the history of metallurgy and from numismatists working on early coinage."
Co-authored with Paul Craddock, director of the metals section of the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum, the book gives a full account of the excavations of the furnaces and hearths, which comprise the Sardis refinery. With 40 color and 200 black-and-white illustrations, King Croesus' Gold also includes detailed material analyses, a scientific examination of Lydian coinage and the first authoritative world history of early gold refining and assaying technology from ancient to post-medieval times.
Sardis, once a major city in western Turkey (then known as Asia Minor), flourished under the Lydian kings and reached its height of fame and prosperity under Croesus. In 546 B.C., Sardis fell to the Persians and Croesus was captured. In subsequent centuries the site was occupied by the Greeks under Alexander and later by the Romans. In 1958, a Cornell-Harvard
archaeological expedition was formed to explore the Sardis site. The expedition was unusual for its cooperative spirit, said Ramage. Unlike similar enterprises in which the partners work in self-contained units, the Cornell-Harvard expedition was a heady interdisciplinary mix of archaeologists, geologists, art historians, architects and biologists who formed a single unit.
However, it was Ramage's sleuth work that led to the discovery of a unique facility for bulk refining of gold. The gold itself was miniscule -- "little pinheads and pieces" left over from the refining process. But the historic implications made Sardis a treasure trove. From the evidence gathered, Ramage and colleagues discovered that the Lydians had developed a process for rendering alluvial gold -- mined from the nearby Pactolus River -- into its component parts of silver and gold.
"The Lydians are generally supposed to have invented coinage as we know it," said Ramage. "And they are specifically credited with introducing separate gold and silver coins, rather than the mixture known as electrum that had been in use previously."
Ramage added that "comparing these finds from an actual process with the snippets of information from around the ancient world allowed a much more confident understanding of some of the conflicting accounts among the classical, Indian or Arabic texts."
King Croesus' Gold was a long time coming -- which was to the authors' advantage. The collaboration with Craddock and the British Museum added a technological edge that would have been lacking had it been published shortly after the findings.
"Obviously a lot of this is history, but the tools for scientific analysis have been developed enormously in the last 30-plus years," said Ramage. "So we have been in a position to find out a great deal more about the various artifacts and materials than we could then."
Sardis continued to yield spectacular finds after the gold refinery was discovered -- but that's another story. Ramage has two more books in progress on the Lydians at Sardis, and he continues to serve as associate director of the Cornell-Harvard expedition.