The humble device that prevents shoelaces from fraying was deemed to be worth more than gold by the indigenous Cubans who traded with Columbus’s fleet, a study led by UCL (University College London) archaeologists has discovered.
Reporting in next month’s edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers analysed burial material – such as beads and pendants – excavated from one of the largest burial sites in northeast Cuba. To their surprise very little gold was discovered, despite its relative abundance in the region. Instead, the most common artefacts were small metal tubes made of brass that were often threaded into necklaces.
While brass making was widespread in medieval and earlier Europe, no evidence exists of brass production in America by indigenous people in the Caribbean – known as Taíno – before the arrival of the Europeans. Using microstructural and chemical analysis, the researchers were able to prove the brass originated in Germany.
Columbus’s 1492 Spanish fleet was the first European presence to arrive in Cuba and radiocarbon dating shows remains from the burial site at El Chorro de Maíta, Cuba date from a few decades after the conquest. Columbus’s diaries also mention the trade of lacetags.
A review of relevant literature and paintings from European sources revealed that the most likely origin of the tubes was not beads but strung together lacetags, or aglets, from European clothing. From the 15th century onwards, these were used to prevent the ends of laces from fraying, and to ease threading in the points for fastening clothes such as doublets and hose. Examples of such usage include a 1636 portrait of William Style of Langley (Tate Gallery, London), which depicts the use of aglets in his waist to secure his trousers through his jacket. Original lacetags excavated from across London that date back to the 13th century can also be found in the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive.
Dr Marcos Martinón-Torres, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, who led the research, explains: “Early chroniclers report that pure gold, or caona, was considered the least valuable metal amongst indigenous Cubans, significantly less esteemed and less sacred than copper-based alloys. Allegedly, the smell and iridescence of brass was what made it particularly appealing. If we couple this with the contrasting eagerness of the Spanish for plundering noble metals, then we have a paramount factor explaining the scarcity of gold in the cemetery at El Chorro de Maíta, and the relative abundance of brass.
“It would have been impossible for the first Europeans arriving in the Caribbean to envisage the colossal value that their metal would accomplish in trade with the indigenous population. Accordingly, one could not expect them to have loaded up their ships with unnecessarily large amounts of metals. Upon arrival, with virtually any metal gadget becoming precious amongst the Taíno, European conquerors would have traded anything they had at hand, including the cheap and dispensable lacetags. Moreover, these had a suitable shape for threading and turning into visible pendants. Functional European brass was thus conceptually transformed, not only, into an ornament but it conveyed supernatural powers to the wearer.”
Located in the Banes area of the Holguín province, El Chorro de Maíta is well known as one of the largest archaeological sites in northeast Cuba. During the 1980s, 120 skeletons were excavated, of which 25 per cent were found with burial goods thought to signify their wealth or position in Taínos society. Alongside ornaments made of stone, pearl, resin and coral, three types of metal objects were identified. Initial analysis by archaeologist Roberto Valcárcel Rojas of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment in La Habana, Cuba, found they were composed of gold and two types of alloy, gold-copper-silver and zinc-rich copper alloys – or brass.
The lack of more sophisticated technical equipment and expertise prevented further analysis until Mr Valcárcel visited the unique on-site facilities in the UCL Institute of Archaeology last year, where scanning electron microscopy and X-ray microanalytical techniques were applied to the artefacts.
“The key to deciphering where metals come from is to look at their geochemical signature,” explains Dr Martinón-Torres. “The technology to exploit copper and silver was unknown to the Taíno but was in common use on mainland South American, which strongly suggests that the alloy was imported from within America. However, brass production was unknown outside Europe.
“Brass is an alloy composed of copper and zinc but, depending on where the constitute metals come from, they also have traces of other elements. Using techniques equivalent to looking at the DNA of the metal we were able to show that minute iron, lead and tin impurities were consistent with brass objects from Nuremberg at this time.
“Although we lack detailed information on the supply of brass in 16th century Spain, it seems very plausible that the German metal used for these tubes could have reached Spain via established commercial routes before being brought to Cuba.”
Professor Thilo Rehren, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, and senior author of the study, says: “Acquiring gold of the New World quickly became one of the major aspirations of the European colonists, and ethnohistorical accounts highlight how they endeavoured to liaise with the emerging local elites to barter for their circulating gold and exploit some of their other natural resources. The relationship between Europeans and Americans, in which metals seem to have played a very significant role, dramatically affected the later history of both peoples. The removal of noble metals had a significant impact on the later economy and goes some way to explaining why Europe is rich today compared with Cuba.”
Roy Stephenson, the Museum of London’s archaeological archive manager, added: “This is fascinating work carried out by UCL which will shed light on what appears to be quite dreary and repetitive finds, but in reality tells a compelling story about international trade.”