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Silver, The White Gold Of The Ancients

When Quintus Fabius Maximus in 121 B.C. forced Bituitas, conquered French king, to drive down the streets of Rome in his war chariot of silver wrought from the mines of Arverni, a great clamor arose, for the Romans adored silver. They looted it in bowls, cups, ewers and salvers, jewelry and furniture, exquisitely wrought, from their Asian and Greek and "Barbarian" conquests. They captured the silver mines of Spain and exploited them to the full so silver became common on well to do tables. Even the poor had pottery with a "silvery sheen" -surely metallic lustered. And Rome's antique auctions saw tremendous prices paid for antique Eastern silver dishes.

Silver came into use later than gold. For silver is rarely found in nuggets or masses but is scattered thinly through other metals, especially galena lead. Silver does occur in gold and the Egyptians who separated it from gold at the Nubian mines by the old "salt process" called it white gold.

An Egyptian queen's tomb from the XII Dynasty held a silver spoon with a twisted handle, a silver cap for a jar, and several silver amulets. Genesis tells of Joseph calling for his cup of silver to measure Egypt's corn. Much silver was brought to Egypt from Spain, and more came as tribute from conquered Asia.

The silver mines of Asia Minor and Greece's Laurion gave plenty of the precious white metal for vessels, shields, weapons, ornaments and furniture. Homer's Odyssey tells of the king selecting a bowl from the glittering rows in the sweet smelling cupboard, while the prince chose a silver beaker. And silver bowls, vases, goblets, pins and ear rings were among treasures modernly dug up from the site of ancient Troy. However the chemical action of the moist earth has destroyed much buried silver.


Ancient Eastern metal smiths combined silver with other metals to get color effects in their work. Alloying it with gold gave a pale amber color the ancients called electrum. Sixty to seventy per cent gold gave a golden, greenish tinge. Sulphur blackened it, and other chemicals brightened it to gleaming white.

It was rolled into silver sheets and cut into patterns or drawn into wires for inlaying, damascening, or fusing into ruddy copper, pale bronze, warm yellow gold, and gilded silver, to give the richness of embroidery and jewels to metal ornaments, weapons, furniture and dishes of kings.

It was hammered into raised (embossed or repousse) patterns and the rough interior hid by smooth metal lining. It was pierced and laid over darker metals, woods, jewels or even cloth for color contrast and good luck. Esther and Ahasuerus (Xerxes) in 450 B.C. slept in gold beds inlaid with silver. Statues of gods were faced with the precious white metal. Indeed India's Goddess of Smallpox, Shitala, is always made of it.

India's silver gilt water sarais (bottles) from Kashmir are as famous as her marvelous bidri work which is made of highly polished silver layed in an alloy generally of copper, lead and tin, blackened by sal ammoniac, blue vitriol, salt, and saltpeter. Her filigree, or silver wire and graining ornamentation, often made by nimble fingered boys, was a loved art in Mesopotamia's ancient Sumerian civilization. It spread through Eurasia from Araby to Sweden where even now churches store silver filigree bridal crowns which make each girl "queen for a day."

Other silver arts spread through Eurasia. Last century in the peat bogs of Jutland a great Gaulish silver vat was found, its panels embossed with Classical scenes, and with the Gaulish god Cernunnos wearing his antlers and holding up his ring and his ram headed serpent. England's Roman silver relics include spoons and forks. And ancient silver coins from many eras and kingdoms have been found throughout Eurasia.


Church smiths, Asian trained in the Christian capital, Byzantium, which stamped the quality on its silver even as Europe did later, made silver cups, basins, ewers, flagons, and other needs of Princes of the Church, chiefs, and kings through the dark ages.

Then Spanish Conquistadores melted down American Indian temple and personal silver ornaments and shipped the silver home. But raided Spanish galleons put silver in the churches, mansions and stables of Europe. Silver communion sets, silver table ware, and silver drinking cups were the order of the day. Silver belts, necklaces, ear rings, stomachers, buttons and perfume flasks, vinaigrettes or pomanders, pierced and filled with musk or perfume to drown out odors of unclean humans and refuse strewn cities, pleased the rich. Silver trimmed carriages and harness caused pride or envy.

France melted her silver down for her wars. The Revolution destroyed the rest. England's War of the Roses, and the Reformation took much, but her trade riches replenished it. Also she developed Sheffield silver which "stretched out" the silver supply by plating it on copper, later on nickelsilver-an old invention of the Chinese.


England's Sheffield has a tremendous market value today. And she has handed down quality marked, fine traditional silver in her great homes, great collections, and great museums.

For the English lords of the manors, the silver "master salt" dish received the finest metal work. Trencher salts for "dipping with a clean knife" marked each "place" at important tables. Silver basin and rose water ewer for rinsing fingers after the meat was a necessity before forks came into use in the 17th century. Silver platters brought the steaming joint of meat. Silver skewers held it through the carving.

Silver wine cisterns cooled the wine bottles. Little tasting cups reduced fear of poison. And silver drinking flagon, goblet, tankard and cup were the pride of many an English table. The caudle cup held hot spiced wine with crumbled bread for a nightcap against cold castle beds. The posset cup held curds and whey, with maybe a crumbled oat cake for tender stomachs. Tumblers with heavy rounded bottoms righted themselves under uncertain hands.

Silver bowls, trenchers, two handled cups, nutmeg graters and epergnes, with arms for sweetmeats in many little dishes, and often flanked by candle holders, served the rich. Spoons-the apostle, seal, maiden head, fiddle head, monkey head, trifid or three leaf (called hind's foot by the French), rat tailed, and tea spoons-all had their day.

The muffineer sprinkled sugar over hot breads. The silver dish-cross, like the Irish "potato ring" held hot dishes off the table top. Silver toilet sets plus Nell Gwyn's silver bedroom furniture and accessories made tongues clack around the world.

Churches kept their communion sets, their elaboration limited to the tastes and wealth of the congregation. All these elegancies in silver came to the American Colonies.


American silver patterns followed European except silver articles made by Indian smiths out of their tribal crafts and designs. Most of this is collected today, from personal jewelry, to horse trappings, bridle, saddle, and spurs.

Mexico and South America have splendid silver ornaments as well as table services. The South American paleteiros (the rabbit with his umbrella, the bunch of flowers, the ballet girl, each bristling with toothpicks) are collectors' treasures.

Boston's Robert Sanderson and his partner, John Hull, made fine silver for churches and homes through the 17th century. The edict of Nantes sent America many French silversmiths with their flair for delicate and elaborate pattern. Paul Revere, of French descent, left work now highest priced of all American silver antiques. The Dutch of New York had strict standards for silversmiths and some of America's finest silverware was made by them. The list of early American silversmiths is long.

Drinking cups from tankard to goblet, communion sets, tea sets, coffee and chocolate pots, and trays to hold them, cake baskets, sandwich plates and butter dishes, were favorites. Porringers that served as oat meal dishes, vegetable dishes, mustard pots, and castor sets graced many American tables. Silver desk sets, dresser sets, candlesticks and snuffers enriched the homes of tycoons and planters.

Flat silver (knives, forks and spoons), and silver plate in general, whether pierced, engraved, repoussed, inlaid, stained or gilded, solid or plated, once the pride of our ancestors, are sometimes even more highly prized by us today. Thus the precious "white gold" of the ancients forms treasure troves of modern America. Surely one of our great cities, destroyed as was ancient Egypt's Thebes, must leave many times over the sixty fabulous tons of silver which Cambyses collected and carried home to his Land of the Two Rivers.

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