The gold of Africa has been a constant source of supply to goldsmiths around the Mediterranean world for over 3000 years. The Egyptians got gold from Sudan and Ethiopia and perhaps even Zimbabwe before 1500 BC. Gold from West Africa was carried by caravans across the Sahara desert to Egypt, Morocco and other North African countries at least by 400 AD, probably earlier.

But what of the goldsmiths' art in Africa itself? Although gold was long regarded as precious for trade in exchange for salt and other goods, its relative abundance at home, especially in West Africa, also nourished the local goldsmiths' trade. The best known tradition is that of the Asante people in Ghana (long known as the 'Gold Coast') which reached its peak between 1700 and 1900 AD.

The roots of their art, however, go back much earlier and embrace not just modern Ghana, but Mali, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal. The gold deposits of West Africa knew no boundaries; placer deposits in river gravels were dispersed throughout the whole region. Indeed, unofficial alluvial mining is still widely dispersed today, providing plenty of gold for local goldsmiths or export through the town of Bammako in Burkina Faso. The only modern difference is that the gold dust goes by plane instead of camel caravan. There are also now major gold mines in West Africa (see Mining Section: Ghana, Mali, Guinea), but the informal trade is as it has been for centuries.

The origins are in Mali where the towns of Jenne-Jeno and Timbukto became commercial centres by 500 AD as the focus of trans-Sahara trade. Goldsmiths established themselves there for, although the caravans took mainly gold dust, ornaments went too. Not much remains of this work, although a delicate golden pendant earring dating from around 900 AD has been excavated at Jenne-Jeno. Most gold seems to have crossed the Sahara to the North African coast where local rulers minted it into dinars, which served widely as currency around the Mediterranean after 800 AD.

The reputation of Mali was enhanced by a famous pilgrimage in 1324 by Sultan Mansa Mas of Mali to Mecca by way of Egypt, who took along a treasure trove of ornaments and gold dust for his expenses. Few early ornaments, however, have survived, not least because there was a tradition of melting old ornaments for new that goes back hundreds of years. And if one local ruler overthrew another, he had fresh ornaments made from any looted gold.

Mali's status faded after 1400 to be replaced by more flourishing gold economies on the 'Gold Coast', Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal, stimulated by the first Portuguese voyage around West Africa, not least in search of direct gold supplies. Soon, the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English, were taking gold dust and ornaments directly back to Europe, bypassing the historic Sahara overland route. The traders were amazed by the ornaments, especially among the Akan people on the south coast of Ghana, where gold mining expanded from the 14th century. A Portuguese expedition in 1482 was met by an Akan chief whose arms, legs and neck were "covered with chains and trinkets of gold in many shapes, and countless bells and large beads of gold were hanging from the hair of his beard and his head". An English trader, John Lok, in 1554, found Akan women "laden with collars, bracelets, hoops and chains … some … wear on their bare arms certain foresleeves made of plates of beaten gold and on their fingers rings made of golden wires with a knot or wreath".

Within the Akan culture was the small kingdom of the Asante, somewhat inland but much closer to the richest gold mines controlled by the Denkyira kingdom. In 1701 the Asante defeated the Denkyira and put together a loose confederation of mini-kingdoms who pledged allegiance to the Asante king, styled as Asantehene. For the next 200 years the Asante empire ruled the gold trade, even requiring all goldsmiths to work in their capital, Kumasi, so that their activities could be closely monitored. They produced some spectacular gold objects from the gold supplied to them by the Asantehene, normally using the lost-wax casting method which had been known in West Africa for centuries. The wearing of these ornaments and the accompanying regalia of a golden throne or stool, multi-coloured umbrellas with gold handles, gold helmets and sandals was very much the prerogative of the Asante king and local chiefs. Gold was the symbol of status and wealth, which meant power. The gold objects could also be a source of revenue, because at least for a while the kings required old ornaments to be melted for new before a great festival each year - and then levied a tax on the goldsmiths' earnings. For that reason, older objects tend not to have survived.

What was on show at ceremonies or to greet foreign visitors was dazzling. A British envoy, T. E. Bowditch, who visited Kumasi in 1817, reported "The sun was reflected … from the massy gold ornaments … some wore necklaces reaching to the navel entirely of aggry beads; a band of gold and beads encircled the knee, from which several strings of the same depended; small circles of gold like guineas, rings and casts of animals were strung round their ankles". He also observed that the Asantehen "Wore a pair of gold castanets on his finger and thumb, which he clapped to enforce silence … the belts of the guards were cased in gold and covered in small jaw bones of the same metal". Bowditch collected a number of gold objects, which now form the basis of the Brtish Museum's collection of Asante gold.

Further Asante gold treasures came to London in 1874, when a British military force attacked Kumasi after threats to trading posts on the coast and demanded 50,000 ounces (1.55 tonnes) indemnity, which was largely in gold beads and ornaments, of which some of the best are now in the Brtish Museum. Gold indemnity was demanded by the British again in 1896 after more confrontations. This imperial 'looting' of Asante's finest gold made the Asante more cautious in the use of solid gold. Although they resiliently re-made much of the regalia in the late 19th century and maintained it through the 20th century, thin gold sheet or foil was increasingly used over wood carving. Such objects still look splendid when displayed on ceremonial occasions in Ghana today and are a reminder of the skills of Africa's goldsmiths that stretch back nearly 2000 years.

See also: library/history and library/jewellery.