Arctic yields fresh evidence for Elizabethan gold swindle

07/05/04

Canadian scientists say they've found conclusive proof that a tiny, barren Arctic island was the site of Canada's first, and perhaps greatest, mining fraud.

In 1577 and 1578, Kodlunarn Island, in what is now Frobisher Bay, was the site of British mariner Martin Frobisher's infamous Arctic Eldorado turned New World financial nightmare. Now two Laval University scientists say there's solid evidence that Frobisher and his chemists were in on a massive fraud that was an Elizabethan-era "prelude to Bre-X."

Since the scandal broke more than 400 years ago that the tons of black rock Frobisher brought back to London from the Canadian Arctic near present-day Iqaluit were worthless, there's been speculation about what happened. Was this a massive con job on Elizabeth I and her court, or did Frobisher's assayers mistakenly dupe themselves into believing they'd found gold?

One intriguing hypothesis, put forward by now retired University of Ottawa mineralogist Dr. Donald Hogarth, argued that Frobisher's assayers inadvertently contaminated their samples with gold from the lead used in the assay process.

Now, for the first time, lead samples from the assay workshops on Kondlunarn Island have been analyzed using a combination of age-old and high-tech methods in order to test the contamination hypothesis.

"We find there's not a trace of gold contamination in the lead used by Frobisher's assayers at the Kodlunarn Island site," says Dr. Georges Beaudoin, a geologist at Laval University. The results of his NSERC-funded research appear in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

The five, tarnished, grey beads of lead – the largest about the diameter of a toonie – were discovered and collected on Kodlunarn Island during an archeaological excavation of the site in 1993-4 led by Laval University archaeologist Dr. Réginald Auger.

"With these results we've now discarded the possibility that the lead was contaminated with precious metals," says Dr. Auger, co-author of the article. "So how is it that in 1578 Frobisher went so far as to load 12 ships with tons of black ore and sail it back to London? The chemists at the site must have known the ore was worthless. We have to conclude that there was a fraud."

Sixteenth century assayers knew that it was possible to contaminate their ore samples with gold and silver. The assay process, still used today, involves melting a small sample of ore in a ceramic bowl. Powdered lead is then sprinkled onto the molten rock. As the lead mixes and sinks to the bottom of the bowl it binds with other metals by a geochemical affinity. The lead bead, or button, that forms at the bottom of the ceramic bowl is then collected and any precious metals chemically separated from the lead.

However, the same geochemical affinity that causes the precious metals to bind with the lead in the assay process means that the lead being used can already be naturally contaminated with these metals.

"European lead was notorious for containing silver," says Dr. Auger, whose research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Quebec's Fond de recherche sur la société et la culture.

Using lead isotope analysis, Dr. Beaudoin determined that there were two sources of the lead used at the Kodlunarn Island site. Through electron probe and mass spectrometry analysis, Dr. Beaudoin determined that neither of the lead types had detectable levels of gold.

Frobisher's Kodlunarn Island site was re-discovered in 1860 by the American journalist and Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, who was searching for the missing Franklin expedition.

In the early 1990s, the University of Ottawa's Dr. Hogarth used modern analytical techniques to determine that there were only minute traces of gold in the black rocks that so many in the court of Elizabeth I believed were a New World treasure trove.

At least six assays performed on the rocks in London in 1577 and 1578 reported levels of gold concentration more than 100,000 times that actually in the rock.

"We can only conclude that the gold was added by the assayers in London," write Drs. Beaudoin and Auger.

This is the first time Beaudoin has applied his geochemical savvy to an archaeological mystery. He says there are remarkable similarities between this 426-year-old mining swindle and the Bre-X scandal of the 1990s. In that case a junior Canadian mining company claimed to have found a gigantic gold deposit in an Indonesian jungle. The news sent the company's penny stock skyrocketing to $280, only to collapse when it was revealed that the ore samples had been tampered with.

Beaudoin estimates that it took only about two ounces of gold, costing about $800 at today's prices, to "salt" the Frobisher samples and launch an investment frenzy.

Says Beaudoin, "In Bre-X they were probably using the same low-level of sophistication in the salting of the ore. It was fascinating to see how the story repeated itself."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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