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Ancient Silver

Bronze Age Silver


Our silver story starts somewhere in the end of the 4th millennium BC when clever inhabitants of modern-day Turkey figured out they could extract silver from lead through cupellation (see also: Silver Mining & Metallurgy). Very few silver pieces from this time have survived but those that do give us a great insight in what these Bronze Age silversmiths were capable of.

At the dawn of history (history meaning that part of the past we have written accounts of) silver was used as a currency in Mesopotamia. Not as in coins but purely by weight or in the form of rings. The Mesopotamian silversmith’s shop would have resembled that of the goldsmith or, as is often the case these days, would have been the very same shop. Although silver is slightly less ductile than gold and requires more frequent annealing during the manufacturing process it can still be cast, hammered into extremely thin sheets, engravedembossed, used in repoussé work and decorated with filigree and granulation. Vessels, statuettes, and jewelry have been found which indicate that silver with a high purity was used, yielding quite soft objects.

Silver Bull Figure, Southern Iran, ~3000 BC


Electrum Cowrie Shell Necklace, Egypt, c.2055 BC-1650 BC
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Egyptians cherished the rare and exotic. When it came from far away, they loved it. Great lengths of trouble were gone through to get Afghan Lapis lazuli, arguably the most valuable gemstone to them. Along this trade route silver reached Egypt as well and, just as with lapis, it was valued highly and seen as extremely exclusive. Gold could be obtained close to home from the mountains in the Eastern desert and Nubia and perhaps some electrum has come from here as well but pure silver must have been imported, causing it to be worth more than gold and only fit for the most important people.

Gold and Silver Bangle, c.2055 BC-1650 BC

By about 1600BC the value of silver had sunk to about half that of gold, indicating that the supply of the metal had grown considerably. By this time it was used as an abstract currency having a constant value. The popularity of silver apparently was submitted to the conjuncture of fashion. King Tut’s grave, for instance, contained hardly any silver items while Sheshonq II even had an all silver sarcophagus.

Minoa, Mycenae & Phoenicia

Cast Silver Engraved Armlet Found on Cyrpus, ~1000 BC.

The Minoans, and in greater extent, the later Mycenaeans were traders and consequently would have dealt with silver a lot. Hence, we do see a considerable amount of early Greek silver jewelry from archaeological sites on the Greek mainland, Crete, and Cyprus.

The Phoenicians have played a special role in the development of the Mediterranean civilizations through their colonization and trade to all corners of the area. It was the Phoenicians who started the exploit of the Spanish silver deposits and distribution throughout the classical world. Their incentives pulled silver from its exclusive and exotic status and its availability rose to levels never seen before.

Classical Silver

To both the Greek and Roman societies the availability of silver was extremely important as their currencies, properly minted silver coins, depended on it. It appears that it wasn’t used in jewelry as much as gold was, we see way more gold items surviving from that era, but to some extent, this may be due to remelting and recycling. That what survived shows that it was used for all possible types of jewelry, finger rings, anklets, armlets etc.

Greek Hair Ornament, ~500 BC, Cyprus.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman coin pendant, ~2 BC, Rome.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Romans were fond of niello, a surface decoration technique very similar to enameling but then with silver sulphate rather than glass. Niello is much tougher than enamel and has a metallic luster rather than a vitreous one. During the Roman occupation of Northern Europe niello spread throughout the continent, as can be seen from Anglo-Saxon finds in Britain, as well as in Eastern-Europe.

Reading Pliny is always good for a nice insight into Roman life through the eyes of an incredible skeptic. Below follow a few chapters from his Naturalis Historia concerning silver and the Roman fondness of it:

Chapter 31. Silver.

After stating these facts, we come to speak of silver ore, the next (after gold) folly of mankind. Silver is never found but in shafts sunk deep in the ground, there being no indications to raise hopes of its existence, no shining sparkles, as in the case of gold. The earth in which it is found is sometimes red, sometimes of an ashy hue. It is impossible, too, to melt it, except in combination with lead or with galena, this last being the name given to the vein of lead that is mostly found running near the veins of the silver ore. When submitted, too, to the action of fire, part of the ore precipitates itself in the form of lead, while the silver is left floating on the surface, like oil on water.

Silver is found in nearly all our provinces, but the finest of all is that of Spain; where it is found, like gold, in uncultivated soils, and in the mountains even. Wherever, too, one vein of silver has been met with, another is sure to be found not far off: a thing that has been remarked, in fact, in the case of nearly all the metals, which would appear from this circumstance to have derived their Greek name of “metalla.” It is a remarkable fact, that the shafts opened by Hannibal in the Spanish provinces are still worked, their names being derived from the persons who were the first to discover them. One of these mines, which at the present day is still called Bæbelo, furnished Hannibal with three hundred pounds’ weight of silver per day. The mountain is already excavated for a distance of fifteen hundred paces; and throughout the whole of this distance there are water-bearers standing night and day, baling out the water in turns, regulated by the light of torches, and so forming quite a river.

The vein of silver that is found nearest the surface is known by the name of “crudaria.” In ancient times, the excavations used to be abandoned the moment alum was met with, and no further13 search was made. Of late, however, the discovery of a vein of copper beneath alum, has withdrawn any such limits to man’s hopes. The exhalations from silver-mines are dangerous to all animals, but to dogs more particularly. The softer they are, the more beautiful gold and silver are considered. It is a matter of surprise with most persons, that lines traced14 with silver should be black.

Chapter 44. The different kinds of silver, and the modes of testing it.

There are two kinds of silver. On placing a piece of it upon an iron fire-shovel at a white heat, if the metal remains perfectly white, it is of the best quality: if again it turns of a reddish colour, it is inferior; but if it becomes black, it is worthless. Fraud, however, has devised means of stultifying this test even; for by keeping the shovel immersed in men’s urine, the piece of silver absorbs it as it burns, and so displays a fictitious whiteness. There is also a kind of test with reference to polished silver: when the human breath comes in contact with it, it should immediately be covered with steam, the cloudiness disappearing at once.

Chapter 49. Instances of luxury in silver plate.

The caprice of the human mind is marvellously exemplified in the varying fashions of silver plate; the work of no individual manufactory being for any long time in vogue. At one period, the Furnian plate, at another the Clodian, and at another the Gratian, is all the rage—for we borrow the shop even at our tables. Now again, it is embossed plate that we are in search of, and silver deeply chiselled around the marginal lines of the figures painted upon it; and now we are building up on our sideboards fresh tiers of tables for supporting the various dishes. Other articles of plate we nicely pare away, it being an object that the file may remove as much of the metal as possible.

We find the orator Calvus complaining that the saucepans are made of silver; but it has been left for us to invent a plan of covering our very carriages with chased silver, and it was in our own age that Poppæa, the wife of the Emperor Nero, ordered her favourite mules to be shod even with gold!

Chapter 50. Instances of the frugality of the ancients in reference to silver plate.

The younger Scipio Africanus left to his heir thirty-two pounds’ weight of silver; the same person who, on his triumph over the Carthaginians, displayed four thousand three hundred and seventy pounds’ weight of that metal. Such was the sum total of the silver possessed by the whole of the inhabitants of Carthage, that rival of Rome for the empire of the world! How many a Roman since then has surpassed her in his display of plate for a single table! After the destruction of Numantia, the same Africanus gave to his soldiers, on the day of his triumph, a largess of seven denarii each—and right worthy were they of such a general, when satisfied with such a sum! His brother, Scipio Allobrogicus, was the very first who possessed one thousand pounds’ weight of silver, but Drusus Livius, when he was tribune of the people, possessed ten thousand. As to the fact that an ancient warrior, a man, too, who had enjoyed a triumph, should have incurred the notice of the censor for being in possession of five pounds’ weight of silver, it is a thing that would appear quite fabulous at the present day. The same, too, with the instance of Catus Ælius, who, when consul, after being found by the Ætolian ambassadors taking his morning meal off of common earthenware, refused to receive the silver vessels which they sent him; and, indeed, was never in possession, to the last day of his life, of any silver at all, with the exception of two drinking-cups, which had been presented to him as the reward of his valour, by L. Paulus, his father-in-law, on the conquest of King Perseus.

We read, too, that the Carthaginian ambassadors declared that no people lived on more amicable terms among themselves than the Romans, for that wherever they had dined they had always met with the same silver plate. And yet, by Hercules! to my own knowledge, Pompeius Paulinus, son of a Roman of equestrian rank at Arelate, a member, too, of a family, on the paternal side, that was graced with the fur, had with him, when serving with the army, and that, too, in a war against the most savage nations, a service of silver plate that weighed twelve thousand pounds!

Chapter 51. At what period silver was first used as an ornament for couches.

For this long time past, however, it has been the fashion to plate the couches of our women, as well as some of our ban- quetting-couches, entirely with silver. Carvilius Pollio, a Roman of equestrian rank, was the first, it is said, to adorn these last with silver; not, I mean, to plate them all over, nor yet to make them after the Delian pattern; the Punic fashion being the one he adopted. It was after this last pattern too, that he had them ornamented with gold as well: and it was not long after his time that silver couches came into fashion, in imitation of the couches of Delos. All this extravagance, however, was fully expiated by the civil wars of Sulla.

Chapter 53. The enormous price of silver plate.

It is not, however, only for vast quantities of plate that there is such a rage among mankind, but even more so, if possible, for the plate of peculiar artists: and this too, to the exculpation of our own age, has long been the case. C. Gracchus possessed some silver dolphins, for which he paid five thousand sesterces per pound. Lucius Crassus, the orator, paid for two goblets chased by the hand of the artist Mentor, one hundred thousand sesterces: but he confessed that for very shame he never dared use them, as also that he had other articles of plate in his possession, for which he had paid at the rate of six thousand sesterces per pound. It was the conquest of Asia that first introduced luxury into Italy; for we find that Lucius Scipio, in his triumphal procession, exhibited one thousand four hundred pounds’ weight of chased silver, with golden vessels, the weight of which amounted to one thousand five hundred pounds. This took place in the year from the foundation of the City, 565. But that which inflicted a still more severe blow upon the Roman morals, was the legacy of Asia, which King Attalus left to the state at his decease, a legacy which was even more disadvantageous than the victory of Scipio, in its results. For, upon this occasion, all scruple was entirely removed, by the eagerness which existed at Rome, for making purchases at the auction of the king’s effects. This took place in the year of the City, 622, the people having learned, during the fifty-seven years that had intervened, not only to admire, but to covet even, the opulence of foreign nations. The tastes of the Roman people had received, too, an immense impulse from the conquest of Achaia, which, during this interval, in the year of the City, 608, that nothing might be wanting, had introduced both statues and pictures. The same epoch, too, that saw the birth of luxury, witnessed the downfall of Carthage; so that, by a fatal coincidence, the Roman people, at the same moment, both acquired a taste for vice and obtained a license for gratifying it.

Some, too, of the ancients sought to recommend themselves by this love of excess; for Caius Marius, after his victory over the Cimbri, drank from a cantharus, it is said, in imitation of Father Liber; Marius, that ploughman of Arpinum, a general who had risen from the ranks!

Chapter 55. The most remarkable works in silver.

It is a remarkable fact that the art of chasing gold should have conferred no celebrity upon any person, while that of embossing silver has rendered many illustrious. The greatest renown, however, has been acquired by Mentor, of whom mention has been made already. Four pairs [of vases] were all that were ever made by him; and at the present day, not one of these, it is said, is any longer in existence, owing to the conflagrations of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus and of that in the Capitol. Varro informs us in his writings that he also was in possession of a bronze statue, the work of this artist. Next to Mentor, the most admired artists were Acra- gas, Boëthus, and Mys. Works of all these artists are still extant in the Isle of Rhodes; of Boëthus, in the Temple of Minerva, at Lindus; of Acragas, in the Temple of Father Liber, at Rhodes, consisting of cups engraved with figures in relief of Centaurs and Bacchantes; and of Mys, in the same temple, figures of Sileni and Cupids. Representations also of the chase by Acragas on drinking cups were held in high estimation.

All at once, however, this art became so lost in point of excellence, that at the present day ancient specimens are the only ones at all valued; and only those pieces of plate are held in esteem the designs on which are so much worn that the figures cannot be distinguished.

Silver becomes tainted by the contact of mineral waters, and of the salt exhalations from them, as in the interior of Spain, for instance.

Celtic Silver

To the Celtic tribes, silver together with bronze, was used extensively for jewelry. Decorated brooches, torcs and lunulae were the most common type of jewelry. Before the Roman invasion the Celts didn’t use coinage but instead used ‘ring money’. These rings were of silver, copper, bronze or gold and weren’t intended for wearing but were solely used as a currency.

Solid Celtic Torc.

Silver Lunula, 2nd Century BC.