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Precious Aglets

November 1, 2006

Brass shoelace tags were more valuable than gold to indigenous Cubans at the time of Columbus.


Trading gold for shoelace tags. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

At a five-hundred-year-old Cuban burial ground, local archaeologists and their colleagues from University College London have found opulent jewelry made from surprisingly humble materials. They were brass shoelace tags called aglets, manufactured in Europe and traded to the indigenous Cuban people for gold. That may sound like a bum deal. But field director Jago Cooper explains that back then, gold in Cuba was abundant and not very valuable. Instead, the social elites decked themselves in a copper-based alloy called guanin.

JAGO COOPER (University College, London):
And when the Europeans turned up, the brass objects which they brought with them were quite similar to guanin, and also represented a high social status.

Caught off guard, the first Europeans traded away whatever brass trinkets they happened to have on hand – or in this case, on foot. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.