The world’s largest and perhaps oldest prehistoric gold treasure was discovered by chance back in 1972 in graves of what has become known as the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city. Photo: BGNES
Humanity’s thirst for GOLD throughout the last – as it turns out – nearly 7,000 years has been very prominent, and so the question of which the oldest gold in the world is has been captivating the imagination of people from all around the globe.
The question, of course, does not refer to the world’s oldest nuggets or native gold ore but to the world’s oldest human-made gold artifacts and world’s oldest human-made gold treasure and treasures – that is, gold that is processed by humans through mining and metallurgy, and then turned into artifacts with added value – monetary, artistic, historical, and cultural.
Then come the additional and no less exciting questions of where exactly that world’s oldest gold has been discovered, why it was discovered where it was discovered, what it is like, and who made it.
For a while now these questions about the world’s oldest gold (treasures) have found at least partially satisfactory answers.
What is known for sure?
The world’s oldest gold processed by humans, the world’s oldest gold treasure, and the world’s oldest gold artifacts have been discovered in Bulgaria.
They date back to the period between 4,500 BC and 4,000 BC, i.e. the second half of the 5th millennium BC (so they are between 6,500 and 6,000 years old).
That is the Late Chacolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) period.
They are the work of the people of Europe’s first human civilization, which developed in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic, roughly 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, in Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe), along the Lower Danube and the Western Black Sea coast as well as further inland, in the valleys and gorges of the Balkans.
This first European civilization did not leave behind highly ostensible structures such as the pyramids of Ancient Egypt or the ziggurats of Ancient Mesopotamia – although it did leave behind a number of other impressive archaeological remains which are still being discovered! Plus it predated both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia by thousands of years.
This first European civilization, which gave the world its earliest gold treasures and also, very likely, the earliest pre-alphabetic writing, has been dubbed “Old Europe" by some American scholars.
So the world’s oldest human-made (or human-processed) gold treasure comes from what is today’s Bulgaria, from the prehistoric civilization of Old Europe in the 5th millennium BC.
But which is it?
Nobody knows for sure. However, there are some five or six prehistoric gold treasures and individual gold artifact finds discovered in different parts of Bulgaria, all of which claim the title of being “the world’s oldest gold".
Scientific literature aside, this is a popular history and popular culture attempt to present all of the world’s earliest gold treasures and artifacts, all found in modern-day Bulgaria, in a single article, or a listicle, if you please, for the sake of answering the global question of the world’s oldest gold, and for the sake of promoting the archaeological heritage of the first European civilization.
Each case of the prehistoric gold treasures from the Chalcolithic presented below has its arguments as to why that particular treasure might or should be considered “the world’s oldest gold" – but all of them date to the same time period (6,500 – 6,000 BC), and from the same geographical region which can fit in a circle with a diameter of 400 kilometers.
Following are the world’s oldest known gold treasures from Bulgaria, the ones that have been discovered so far. Barring potential further gold treasure discoveries in the future, one of those could indeed be the world’s very first human-made gold treasure or artifact.
Some of the most famous artifacts from the 6,500-year-old Varna Gold Treasure, part of the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology. Photo: Visit Varna
Discovered in: 1972, by accident
Discovery Site: Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, Black Sea city of Varna on Bulgaria’s Northern Black Sea coast
Dating: 4,560-4,450 BC (three graves outside the necropolis dated closer to 5,000 BC)
Consists of: Over 3,000 gold artifacts
Combined total weight: 6.5 kilograms
The Varna Gold Treasure is the largest of these prehistoric gold treasures from the 5th millennium BC, it has been the most famous one, and is most often the favorite for the title of the “world’s oldest gold".
Its artifacts have been found in a total of 294 graves in what has become known as the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis from the middle of the 5th millennium BC. One artifact, a bracelet found in an older grave outside the necropolis could the world’s oldest gold artifact, from as early as 5,000 BC.
The Varna Gold Treasure has an awesome discovery story – the necropolis was unearthed by accident by a young excavator operator during manufacturing plant construction.
The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is officially dated to 4,300 – 4,100 BC, and is for sure one of the world’s oldest gold treasures – all five or six of which have been discovered in today’s Bulgaria. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History
Discovered in: 1956 – 1957, by accident
Discovery Site: Hotnitsa Chalcolithic Settlement Mound, Hotnitsa, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality in Central North Bulgaria
Dating: 4,300 – 4,100 BC
Consists of: 44 gold artifacts
Combined total weight: 312 grams
The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is believed to have been a set of a gold chain and four depictions of human faces possibly owned by a prehistoric priest although that remains just a hypothesis.
It was found in a similar fashion to the Varna Gold Treasure: during archaeological excavations caused by an accidental discovery – in this case of a prehistoric settlement mound, which itself was found during the building of irrigation canals in 1955.
Part of the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure might have been stolen at the time of its discovery. At first, it was wrongly deemed a Bronze Age treasure since at the time there had been no knowledge of human-processed gold so early in the prehistory of humanity. The discovery of the Varna Gold Treasure 15 years later changed this perception.
One of its artifacts, a gold spiral, could be the oldest human-made gold artifact as it was found in a layer that was deeper than that of the Varna Gold Treasure. The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure also stands out because it is the only one of Bulgaria’s oldest gold treasure to have been found inside a prehistoric home.
The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is kept at the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History
Gold artifacts from the Durankulak Gold Treaure, from the second half of the 5th millenium BC. Photo: Dobrich Regional Museum of History
Discovered in: 1979, during excavations
Discovery Site: Durankulak Chalcolithic Necropolis, Durankulak, Shabla Municipality, at the Durakulak Lake, a lagoon on Bulgaria’s northern-most Black Sea coast
Dating: 4,650 – 4,200 BC
Consists of: 23 gold artifacts
The Durankulak Gold Treasure is notable for a wide range of reasons, including because it was discovered at a site which was inhabited in the Late Paleolithic, the Neolithic, all the way to the Late Chalcolithic.
The gold artifacts from the Durankulak Gold Treasure were discovered in graves from the Durankulak Necropolis, which is said to be possibly the largest prehistoric necropolis to have been researched anywhere, with more than 1,200 excavated graves.
One of its artifacts, a gold spiral hairpin (bobby pin), is hypothesized to have been from the Middle Chalcolithic, possibly 200 years older than the Varna Gold Treasure – which could mean that it might be the world’s oldest known human-made gold artifact.
The newly discovered anthropomorphic gold ammulet – a round applique – from the Yunatsite Settlement Mound in Southern Bulgaria dates back to the 5th millennium BC. Photo: Pazardzhik Regional Museum of History
The already impressive prehistoric Yunatsite Settlement Mound, an urban-type settlement from the Chalcolithic located in Central South Bulgaria, made international headlines in 2016 with the discovery of a tiny golden bead, and then again in 2017 with the discovery of larger gold amulet.
While the prehistoric artifacts in question cannot be categorized as a full treasure, the archaeologists researching the site argued that their finds were some 200 years older than the gold artifacts from the Varna Gold Treasure.
The gold artifacts from the Yunatsite Settlement Mound are kept at the Pazardzhik Regional Museum of History
The Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") is an already world-famous settlement mound in Northeast Bulgaria hiding the already gradually exposed remains of what is known as Europe’s earliest town – which grew rich by producing and exporting rock salt to the entire region, and also built complex fortifications, Europe’s first, to defend its riches.
In 2015, the archaeologists found there a small gold jewel followed by three more gold jewels found in 2016.
While the dating of the gold artifacts in question is similar to those of other “world’s oldest gold" finds, the archaeologists researching Provadiya – Solnitsata have never alleged that their fresh finds might be the world’s oldest.
The locations where the world’s oldest gold treasures or artifacts has been discovered – in Eastern and Southern Bulgaria: 1. Varna Gold Treasure – Varna (in yellow); 2. Hotnitsa Gold Treasure – Hotnitsa, Veliko Tarnovo (in orange); 3. Durankulak Gold Treasure – Durankulak, Shabla (in red); Sakar Gold Treasure in the Sakar Mountain (in blue); gold finds from the Yunatsite Settlement Mound – Yunatsite, Pazardzhik (n green); gold finds from the Provadiya – Solnitsata Settlment Mound – Provadiya (in purple).
“My question: It is an undisputed fact that Bulgaria is the land of the oldest gold in the world, or, more specifically, the world’s oldest gold treasure, the Varna Gold Treasure from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, or the world’s earliest gold processed by humans through metallurgy. Yet, a number of other gold artifacts and items have been discovered all over Bulgaria, and many of them claim the title of the oldest (processed) gold (treasure) in the world. So in your view as an expert in the Chalcolithic, which is the oldest gold in the world?
Gergov’s Answer: In my view, it is the Varna Gold Treasure. There have been small finds such as gold beads or even larger finds in various sites in recent years but they don’t resolve the main issue, that is, they are not big enough in order to be representative enough. Not to mention the fact that an individual gold bead could always have fallen deeper from the later archaeological layers above.
But you need the whole picture, the big picture, when it comes to gold processed through metallurgy. Because the prehistoric people knew gold much earlier thanks to nuggets and native gold. In my view, the finds from Durankulak, Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit"), Hotnitsa, other places, aren’t representative enough of this major shift in which humans began processing gold through metallurgy.
The Durankulak gold is also too small to be characteristic of that. Even older gold beads could be found but, again, that wouldn’t resolve the main issue the way the Varna Gold Treasure does. What solves the main issue is when you discover a find that is large enough and therfore with a fundamental historical meaning, and can thus be considered a benchmark. This is my personal view, and you can construe it any way you like.”
Bonus: What Followed the Prehistoric Gold Treasures, the World’s Oldest, in Bulgaria
Following are a couple of the most notable Bronze Age gold treasures which have been discovered in Bulgaria – but which date back to a later period – the 3rd – 2nd millennium BC, the time of the Proto-Thracians and Ancient Thracians, the people who conquered and/or displaced the people from the original prehistoric civilization in Southeast Europe:
The Valchitran Gold Treasure is the largest treasure from Ancient Thrace in terms of weight. Photo: Wikipedia
It is from Northwest Bulgaria, dating to 1,600 – 1,200 BC, the Late Bronze Age, the time of ancient Troy and the events described in Homer’s Iliad; it was discovered by accident in 1925, consists of 13 different vessels with a combined total weight of 13 kilograms making it the largest (heaviest) gold treasure to have been found in Bulgaria.
This Early Bronze Age phallic-shaped gold jewel found in a child’s grave
Archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov is seen here back in 2000 showing the phallic-shaped gold decoration found on the neck of a 10-12-year-old child buried in the Early Bronze Age necropolis of the Telish – Laga settlement, in Telish, Northwest Bulgaria. The excavations in 2000-2001 in which the artifact was discovered were funded by the government of Denmark. Photo: archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov
It was found in the grave of a 10-12-year-old child in the Telish – Laga Bronze Age settlement in Telish, Northwest Bulgaria – discovered in 2000 by above-mentioned archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov. (More information about it here)