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An expert works to uncover one of the 20 wooden sculptures which were recently discovered at the ancient archaeological site of Chan Chan, in the outskirts of the northern city of Trujillo, in Peru, on October 22, 2018, - The unique sculptures found in niches are fixed to the ground measuring an average of 70 centimeters and representing different characters. (Photo by CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP) / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by CRIS BOURONCLE has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [20] instead of [19]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.        (Photo credit should read CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Elvo River, Italy CNN —  

Dario Zanetti squints into his black plastic pan, tilting it into the sun. There are three tiny yellow specks, and a slightly larger one, the size of a small bread crumb.

“It’s a lovely piece,” he says with smile.

This English teacher is ankle deep in Italy’s Elvo River, just south of the Alps, panning for gold.

“I’m relatively new at this, a freshman,” he laughs.

Dario is also studying for his PhD in archaeology, specializing in kitchens in medieval castles. He isn’t doing this for the money, though he readily admits he has caught gold fever. Two years ago, as a Christmas present, his mother paid for him to attend a gold-panning course in Germany.

Approximately $4 of gold is seen in this bottle. Around two hundred of these gold flecks make a gram.
Ben Wedeman/CNN
Approximately $4 of gold is seen in this bottle. Around two hundred of these gold flecks make a gram.

“It’s also about the adventure,” he tells me. “It’s like, you know, being in America in the gold rush period.”

Dario is just one of a growing number of people who have joined the Association of Gold Seekers of Biella, this province in northern Italy.

The gold here has washed down from the melting glaciers of the Alps, deposited in the sand along the banks of the Elvo.

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This area was once part of a vast Roman gold-mining operation dating back to the second century BC, says Arturo Ramella, who is also the president of the World Goldpanning Association.

The hills just above the Elvo are all man-made, composed of millions of tons of rocks and stones that thousands of local inhabitants separated from the gold-bearing sand. The mine was active, says Ramella, for around two hundred years, and the gold found here helped finance the Roman Republic’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

Arturo Ramella, president of the World Goldpanning Association, looks over hills of stones displaced from an ancient Roman mining operation.
Ben Wedeman/CNN
Arturo Ramella, president of the World Goldpanning Association, looks over hills of stones displaced from an ancient Roman mining operation.

Long gone, however, are the days of forced labor. The atmosphere on this bend of the river is light-hearted, almost picnic-like. The sun is shining, it’s warm but not hot and the eight or nine people here to pan for gold spend half their time chatting.

Eight-year-old Giacomo came with his grandmother. He helped her carry the pans full of sand to the river, did some panning himself, and showed me two flakes he had managed to separate from the dark sand.

“It’s fun!” he exclaimed with a toothy smile.

His concentration waned as the morning wore on.

“Look at all of those!” he said, pointing to the finger-long sand-colored fish darting between the stones in the shallow water. “I want to catch some and cook them for lunch!” Clearly Giacomo no longer had images of gold nuggets dancing in his head.

Bruno Martini helps run the association in Biella, and he taught me the basics of panning. First you have to figure out where gold is most likely to be found, which is where the river widens out and the heavier gold flakes are deposited in the darker, iron-rich sand. Then you fill your pan with that sand, removing the larger rocks, and take the pan to the river to slowly rotate the pan, letting the lighter particles wash away. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll have three or four tiny specks of gold.

The province limits daily takings to five grams, or 0.176 of an ounce, but the gold panners say the chances of finding that much gold even after a full day are slim at best. By my calculations I may have managed to get about $4 of gold.

Giancarlo Rolando, a 65-year-old pensioner in a straw hat and sleeveless T-shirt, is the group’s veteran gold seeker. He’s been panning since the 1980s, and recalls that back in the day, he managed to find enough gold to pay for a six-month vacation to the British Virgin Islands.

Giancarlo Rolando is the veteran gold digger.
Livia Borghese/CNN
Giancarlo Rolando is the veteran gold digger.

Since then, however, his earnings have helped pay for occasional car repairs and the odd dinner with a girlfriend.

“It makes a difference because my pension is a bit low,” says Giancarlo.

He comes here once or twice a week, and is proud of the tan all that time in the sun has left him. “My friends think I got this at the beach,” he quips.

As he sits on the riverbank panning away, he explains the attraction.

“Yes, it can be tiring carrying around buckets of sand, but you hear the sound of the water, there is the sun, the wind, tranquility. If you’re tired, you take a nap under a tree. When you’re hungry, you eat, and when you’re done, you go home. It’s not like a job where you’re subject to a schedule. You do what you like. You’re free.”

Gold or no gold, there’s no rush here.