Up until 2015, the oldest known objects that were believed to have served a decorative purpose for the human body were approximately 110,000 years old. Drilled shell beads from this time (the middle Paleolithic period) have been found in a cave in present-day Morocco. Whether these shells fulfilled a purely decorative purpose or were used as an amulet or status symbol is not known. Recently, David Frayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas, along with Croatian colleagues concluded that we may add another 20.000 years to the existence of jewelry. They have found a set of eagle talons that in their eyes couldn’t have been anything else than Neanderthal jewelry.
Other finds from throughout the middle and upper Paleolithic era indicate a continuous use of organic materials for body decoration. The organic nature of the material used prevents us from getting a clearer view of jewelry during this period as weathering and decay have destroyed most of it over time.
During the Neolithic Period, stoneworking techniques evolved to the stage where certain stones could be drilled by others. Chip carving of softer materials like bone, wood, and horn with the use of stone chisels reached levels of higher sophistication.
It was during this age that a vast exchange network emerged. By the end of the Neolithic Period products that were in abundance or unique to one locality were traded to tribes in neighboring areas, who, in their turn, traded with their neighbors. Thus products that were desirable in everyday life, though unique to certain localities, were dispersed over vast areas.
This trade triggered an ever-increasing contact between different tribes and cultures, which meant that techniques and innovations were dispersed faster as well. It meant that life became easier due to the development of more useful tools and newer, more efficient methods of farming, fishing, and hunting. It is in this era that social differences started to become more pronounced as the population of tribes increased with improved farming techniques and an ever-growing amount of specialization.
This increasing complexity emphasized the social differentiation of people. Wearing the biggest, most beautiful, and most unique pieces of jewelry was an excellent way to distinguish oneself. Thus, jewelry was now used as an expression of status in addition to serving purely as a decorative feature or amulet.
Bronze and Iron Ages
When metalworking began and the Neolithic Period faded into the Bronze Age the phenomena described above intensified. Long-distance trade, specialisation, and social differentiation increased at a much faster rate than before. Societies grew immensely and the first real cities ruled by Kings were seen in Mesopotamia around 3000-2500BC. The script and the wheel were invented and further specialisation caused the first real professions to rise in the form of full-time farmers and craftsmen. This ‘total specialisation’ caused a huge increase in skill and the development of advanced techniques. Gold became the most highly-regarded metal for jewelry purposes due both to its exceptional color and lustre and its malleability. This statement has one exception: The Egyptians favored silver over gold.
The Sumerian civilisations in Mesopotamia were the first to use techniques like filigree and granulation. Excavations of the ancient city of Ur have revealed royal graves with pieces featuring these techniques from as far back as 2500BC. The Sumerian craftsmen used gold and silver in combination with precious stones like agate, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. The jewelry produced by the Sumerians consisted of sheet gold cut into earrings, complicated gold chains and necklaces and even stone-inlaid finger rings.
From Mesopotamia, the techniques spread west to present-day Turkey where excavations have revealed fine gold jewelry at Troy that has been dated to 2500-2300BC. The movement may have spread further west towards Greece and Crete as finds of lesser quality and of a slightly later date imply.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, jewellery began to play an important role by the 19th century BC in the Egyptian culture. The Egyptians developed many substitutes for precious stones. Faience and later glass beads have been found in great amounts. Precious stone simulants were invented and are here to stay.
From about 1700BC the Minoan civilisation shows to have mastered the fine techniques of filigree, granulation, and repoussé. The jewelry that has been unearthed on Crete shows strong influences from both Mesopotamia and Egypt but with its own strong design. The Minoan techniques and style jumped to mainland Greece with the city of Mycenae being the port of entry. The Mycenaean civilisation took over the Minoan decorative styles and gradually changed them into a style of their own.
Northern Europe came into it’s Bronze Age around 2000 BC and a few well-made items from between 1800 and 1500 BC have been excavated on the British Isles. It was only after 1500 BC that the extent of the pre-Celtic cultures’ metal jewelry becomes apparent. Tin, gold, and amber acted as natural riches that enabled the tribes living in these areas to trade with Mediterranean cultures. Rich grave gifts at several spots suggest a fairly well-developed society. Around 1100-1000 BC a century of widespread disruption took place. The cultures that emerged from this century of regression, first the Urnfield culture and later The Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, had picked up on the progressive line of technical development and craftsmanship that we are reading about throughout this article.
The Celts used red enamel in their jewelry from around 400 BC. The technique of applying enamel dates back to the Minoan and Mycenaean times when simple encrusted enameled pieces were made. The Celtic craftsmen took enamel application to the next level through cloisonné and champlevé enameling was used to make very colourful body decorations.
The Celtic culture encompassed a wide variety of cultures living in the northern part of Europe that shared the same style and technique of their (metal) products. As a result, we see a somewhat uniform development in Celtic jewelry right up to the Roman conquest of the Celtic world in the first century BC.
From around 800 BC, the Phoenician traders started to establish colonies all around the Mediterranean. They came from the eastern Mediterranean coast, the area that is now Lebanon and Israel and influenced the jewelry-making of the Greeks and Etruscans. The Phoenicians were the connecting element between the long traditions of Egypt and Mesopotamia and the ‘new’ civilisations in Greece and Italy.
Intaglios and cameos originated in ancient Greece where glyptography was perfected to an art form. The Greeks, like every other civilisation up until then, used stones that could be worked easily with the abrasives at hand and yet were hard enough to withstand the hardships of normal daily wear and tear. The most common abrasive in those times was quartz sand which was readily available and was used to polish cryptocrystalline quartz such as agate and carnelian and softer materials like lapis lazuli.
One ancient culture that has left us splendid proof of their gold working skills was the Etruscans. From the 8th century BC and on, this civilisation perfected gold working techniques that were clearly influenced by Greek culture(s). The fine detail of the Etruscan jewelry is of the highest quality and they used many colored stones. The Etruscan style was adopted by the Romans and formed the basis for Roman art and jewelry. One of the characteristics that the Romans adopted from the Etruscans was the love of precious stones in their jewelry.
The Roman Empire connected the Western Asian cultures directly with the Celtic Western European cultures. The excellent infrastructure provided by the Romans boosted trade enormously and triggered a vast exchange of products from the East to the west and vice versa. The Celts “Romanized’ quickly and took over Roman ideas of beauty. The characteristic Celtic jewelry made a place for Roman techniques and styles.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Great Migration of cultures put an end to the Celtic civilisations. The inlaying of colored precious stones and the revival of the old Celtic champlevé enameling makes jewelry from this period very colorful. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to exist far into the Middle Ages and developed a style of its own, influenced by the East.
Prehistory & Ancient History
- ‘The world’s oldest manufactured beads’ are older than previously thought. Published at the Oxford University site. (article no longer on-line) http://bit.ly/1FbwIUg
- Bloemers & v. Dorp et al, Pre- & Protohistorie van de Lage Landen, Open Universiteit 1996.
- 7000 Years of Jewellery, Various Authors, edited by Hugh Tait, British Museum Press, London, 1986.
- Ancient Jewellery: Interpreting the Past, Ogden, Jack, British Museum Press, London, 1992.