Called the ‘cradle of civilisation’ by some, the ancient lands of Mesopotamia have certainly been the cradle of fine workmanship when it comes to jewelry. Southwest Asia and what is now called the Arabian Peninsula had seen widespread trade even before 5000 BC which is evident from the presence of obsidian beads and seashells in jewelry found in modern-day Iraq dating that far back.
Around 2500 BC the Sumerian city of Ur had grown into a civilisation with a rich court life. The rulers of this city were buried in full ornate, and even servants and soldiers were interred with the royal deceased. It is from these royal graves that we are able to get a firm understanding of the sorts of jewelry and their use.
Gold and silver, probably imported from mines in modern-day Turkey and Iran, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and carnelian from India used in Sumerian jewelry exemplify the extensive trade that was conducted at that time. Bright-colored materials were used to craft beads that could be strung to necklaces, headwear and garment decoration. An interesting point to note is that some of the first substitutes for gem materials find their origin here as well.
The Sumerian jewelry makers were the first to use techniques like granulation and filigree, be it in simple and not very fine forms. A well-loved color combination visible from the pieces displayed at the British Museum in London is that of blue-yellow-red; the combination of lapis lazuli, gold and carnelian. The materials were crafted into beads and then strung in alternating ways. A few pieces displaying gold objects with precious stone inlay have been found in the graves of prominent Sumerians as well. Chains, made with the basic loop-in-loop method and filigree show that the Sumerian goldsmiths had a firm grip on making and using gold wire. A typical motive is that of the spiral. Metalworking techniques weren’t very complicated but nevertheless very effective.
Jewelry worn by men often consisted of earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, pectoral ornaments and headbands with a gold chain at the back which is presumed to have acted as a head-cloth fastener. Another typical form of male jewelry was that of the decorated cylinder seal. These seals were the first elaborately engraved pieces of precious stone and therefore the earliest glyptography. Sumerian women wore a much wider variety of jewelry such as golden headdresses made of sheet gold in the form of foliage and flowers, huge crescent-shaped earrings, chokers, large necklaces, belts, dress pins and finger-rings.
Many items that resemble the jewelry from Ur in style and technique have been found in different areas in southwest Asia but local traditions can be discerned everywhere.
- 7000 Years of Jewellery, Various Authors, edited by Hugh Tait, British Museum Press, London, 1986.
- Jewelry, from Antiquity to the Present, Phillips, Clare, Thames & Hudson, London, 1996.