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The humble device that prevents shoelaces from fraying was deemed more valuable than gold by the indigenous Cubans who traded with Columbus fleet, a new British study shows.

Reporting in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of researchers from University College London (UCL) 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 brass tubes that were often threaded onto necklaces.

While brass-making was widespread in medieval Europe, no evidence exists of brass production in America by indigenous people in the Caribbean - known as Taíno - before the arrival of the Europeans. Columbuss 1492 Spanish fleet were the first Europeans to arrive in Cuba and radiocarbon dating shows remains from the burial site at El Chorro de Maíta date from a few decades after the conquest.

A review of relevant literature and paintings from European sources revealed that the tubes are not beads but 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. Notably, Columbus diaries mention the trade of lacetags.

"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," says Marcos Martinón-Torres, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, who led the research. "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."

According to Martinón-Torres, it would have been impossible for the first Europeans arriving in the Caribbean to envisage the value of alloys in trade with the indigenous population. Upon arrival, virtually any metal object would therefore have become precious amongst the Taíno - including the cheap and dispensable lacetags.

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, also known as brass.

The lack of more sophisticated technical equipment and expertise prevented further analysis until Valcárcel visited the facilities in the UCL Institute of Archaeology last year, where scanning electron microscopy and X-ray microanalytical techniques were applied to the artefacts.

Martinón-Torres explains: "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." The German metal likely reached Spain via established commercial routes before being brought to Cuba, he says.

Source: Cosmos Online

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