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Ancient Greek jewelry: charm of the past

Updated on August 12, 2010

History and general features

Greece where sculpture, painting, architecture, music and poetry and so on, took their birth and reached a high watermark of perfection, did not lag behind in "minor" arts like jewelry. Every succeeding generation in Europe has drawn its ispiration from the models left by Greek artists; it was given to them to realise the beauty of gems, to cut them engrave upon them and polish them to bring out their full beauty.  Ancient Greek jewelry commonly consisted of gold beads beautifully shaped like shells, flowers and even beetles. The fascination for jewelry in ancient Greece is quite evident from the excavations of beautiful necklaces and earrings from various sites, especially in the northern part of Greece.
They excelled all other people in reproducing the joy they experienced seeing the beautiful: even the gem-cutters have attempted to reproduce the natural or human figure and other objects of nature in their microscopic work. The Greeks’ concern with beauty and harmony appears to express itself acutely also in their jewellery: to the highest degree naturalistic, it is almost always worked in relief or in the round. Gold is the principal material with occasional enamelling and relatively sparing use of gem materials (mostly garnet), emphasising the intricate craftsmanship, detailed design and a variety of goldsmithing techniques, especially filigree work. The comparative absence of luxurious extravagance may be partly explained by the relative poverty of the Greeks compared to the wealth of the Etruscans, Phoenicians, Persians, and later to that of Rome, but it is surely also because of the Greeks’ general preference for simplicity and dislike of over-elaboration. It is noteworthy that in Greece the wearing of (too much) jewellery was considered effeminate and foolish. However, what at first sight may seem as pure, ‘harmless ornament’ – certainly pleasing to the eye – often has a less obvious, deeper meaning, bringing jewellery into the orbit of mythology and religious belief, even if only indirectly. This is because mythology and religion in the lives of the ancient Greeks were omnipresent, which may be difficult to imagine for many modern Westerners.

During the Bronze Age in Greece the art of jewelry making flourished under the influence of the Near East and from Egypt, while also reflecting the unique ideas and inspiration of local craftsmen. From 3200-2000 BC several fines examples of bronze and silver jewelry survive from the Cyclades, including an outstanding silver diadem from Amorgos, with the top cut in a zigzag pattern, which is now on display in the National Museum in Athens. However the best known collections of gold jewelry of the Bronze Age come from the northeast Aegean, Lemnos in particular, and from Troy. The hair spirals, necklaces, pins, and bracelets from these sites are especially impressive for their beauty and the very advanced techniques, which include filigree and granulation. Spectacular jewelry was also being made in Crete, as is evident from the jewels unearthed from the palace of Minos and other parts of Crete, which includes diadems made of gold sheet with repoussé decoration and fine chains of gold wire, as well as pins, pendants, beads, and bracelets. One of the most impressive examples is the famous gold pendant of two conjoined bees with a honeycomb: simply splendid! Very remarkable also, from the late Bronze Age (!600-1100 BC) are the treasure of Mycenae, a citadel rightly described by the poet Homer as "rich in gold." This jewelry betray the powerful influence of the Minoan artistic tradition: indeed, some of them are pure Minoan imports, while others may have been designed by Minoan craftsmen. This incredible jewelry, now in Athens, includes fine gold diadems (for both sexes) with repoussé decoration; gold coutouts and roundels with repoussé octopuses, butterflies, spirals, and other natural and curvilinear motifs used to adorn luxurious clothing; as well as elaborate pins, earrings, armlets, belts, signet-rings, and necklaces of gold, amber and precious stones.
During the zenith of the Mycenean civilization (15th-13th centuries BC) the type of jewelry produced throughout Greece (with the exception of Crete) is different in many important respects from its forerunnes in the shaft graves and elsewhere; for example, certain types of jewelry, including diadems, pins, and earrings, were no longer popular. Instead necklaces with relief beads and pendants are very frequent; these beads are often in the form of stylized floral and marine motifs known from traditional Minoan iconography.
After the collapse of the Mycenean world (around 1000 BC), little has been discovered about the following 200 years; however between 900 and 700 BC Greek contacts with the prosperous Near East were renewed and the art of jewelry making was revived, initially in Athens, Euboea, Corinth and Knossos, and later throughout the entire Greek world. This early jewelry exhibits the use of sophisticated techniques (repoussé, filigree, granulation, engraving and inlaying with stone, glass and amber); forms and motifs of Minoan-Mycenean jewelry were manteined, though the occasional rediscovered objects demonstrate the influence of the arts of Phoenicia and Asia Minor. New eastern motifs appeared as well, including lions, sphinxes, griffins and the "Mistress of Animals". Among the most outstanding objects from this period is a pair of elaborate earrings with pendant pomegranates, that were found in a rich woman's grave on the northern slope of the Areopagus in Athens.
After the Persian Wars gold was more common in Greece, and much of this was reserved for religious uses (as example, the chyselephantine statues; male deities were crowned with wreaths whereas female deities were frequently embellished with diadems, necklaces, earrings and bracelets). Greek jewelry of the Classical period continues Archaic types and decoration but the orientalizing figures and creatures are generally replaced with floral and geometric motifs (acorn- and vase-shaped pendants) while mythological themes and figures, such as Aphrodite and Eros, also become more popular: elaborate subsidiary ornamentation drew plant and animal motifs, or the relation between adornment and the goddess, Aphrodite, and her son, Eros, popular designs for earrings included airborne winged figures, such as Eros, Nike, and the eagle of Zeus carrying Ganymede up to Mount Olympus. Popular forms include diadems, earrings, necklaces, bracelets and finger rings; most impressive are the new gold wreaths, with the leaves and fruit of oak, myrtle, olive and laurel trees, which were received as prizes, worn in religious ceremonies, processions, and banquets, dedicated in sanctuaries and buried in private tombs as signs of prestige and victory.
The Hellenistic period is arguably the greatest age of Greek jewelry, there is much surviving material; the popular forms of jewelry in this period remained essentialy the same with the addition of animal- or human-headed hoop earrings, necklaces with chains terminating in lion heads, necklaces with linked rather than threaded beads, and medallions from the tops of ornamental hairnets that are decorated with high-relief heads of various Greel deities; in Hellenistic times, jewelry was often passed down through generation. Occasionally, it was dedicated at sanctuaries as offerings to the Gods. There are records of headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, rings, brooches, and pins in temple and treasury inventories, as, for example, at Delos. Most remarkable are the elaborate gold diadems discovered in wealthy tombs throughout the Greek world, which are most often decorated with the new central motif of the Heracles knot; this motif had a magic purpose as well as a decorative one, was associated with marriage and rites of passage in general, and, more specifically, was a symbol of Alexander the Great that evoked the idea of his kinship with the Gods.The Heracles knot was especially popular in jewellery during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC when Heracles was believed to protect universally against danger.

Symbolism in the ancient Greek jewelry

Nowadays jewellery usually has the purpose of decoration, often of status, and sometimes it serves as an amulet – depending, of course, on the type of jewellery and of the particular cultural environment. In fact, ‘courtship practices involving the adornment of females [and] systems of symbolic body ornament generally’ are regarded as ‘cross-cultural universals’: practices and customs found in all human societies at all times. In principle, then, nothing has changed between now and two or three millennia past. In the case of ancient jewellery, however, we must remember that to ancient peoples mythology and religious symbolism were much more present in their daily life than in ours nowadays. Ancient jewellery has a much deeper meaning and frequently communicates this in a very own language. In order to understand and ‘de-code’ ancient jewellery it is vital to place it into its religious context. A familiarity of the symbolism of those deities appearing most frequently in jewellery (either directly or indirectly) and an awareness of why they do so is crucial to comprehend the meaning of ancient jewellery, especially that of Greece, Roma and Etruria. It is also important to remember that the life and art of ancient peoples were permeated by religious belief to a far greater extent than modern occidental societies and that this is necessarily reflected in their imagery.Once these issues are borne in mind, the task to understand ancient civilisations and their symbolic and iconographic vocabulary will be found much more rewarding and become, hopefully, less of a task.
Ancient Greek jewellery breathed religiosity. In the words of Herbert Hoffmann: "Greek jewelry... no less than other forms of Greek art, constantly invokes the close link between man and the metaphysical forces that permeated and limited his existence. Goldsmiths dipped from the deep font of Greek religiosity and filled jewelry...with an unending range of images." Indeed, images of Gods and Goddesses as well as of mythological creatures occur in abundance in Greek jewellery: even if deities are not actually depicted themselves,
their presence is alluded to by representations of the flora and fauna associated with and sacred to the individual deities. Regarding the flora, this includes the (invariably
isolated) representation of leaves as well as of blossoms, fruit, and seeds. Seeds and fruit in turn generally symbolise fertility, a quality not only central to a Greek woman, but also to a country that is subject to an arid climate. In their love for naturalism and their skilful execution thereof, the jewellery of the Greeks differs dramatically from that of the modern times.
‘Male’ imagery comprises predatory animals and mythological monsters because of their strength and aggression. They were direct symbols of a man’s power and (sexual) prowess, whereas less aggressive animals recall the motif of the chase and hunt. However, women also wore jewellery with the very same imagery, which, in turn, may have served as sympathetic magic for the opposite sex. Just how much religion, love, life, and death was linked to the iconography of Greek jewellery can best be appreciated by considering, with respect to their representation in jewellery, the individual deities and the animals and plants associated with them.
Popular ornamental motifs include the amphora, astragals, the palmette, the rosette, and the lotus. Amphorae were traditionally used to store wine, oil and other foodstuffs thus symbolising prosperity and abundance. A slim form (the loutrophoros) served to fetch water for brides to bathe in; those who died unmarried were given loutrophoroi as grave markers, whereas a golden amphora also served as an urn for the ashes of the dead. Amphorae in jewellery therefore have various meanings: at the simplest level, their elegant form is very decorative; secondly, they are an important symbol of wealth and abundance; thirdly they are an important part of every household and depending on the shape have specific use, alluding to the female sphere of the house and certain connotations depending on their shape; and lastly the material of gold jewellery depicting amphorae as well as certain forms echoes those urns used in the burial context. Astragals are small bones from the hind legs of sheep or goats. Playing dice with astragals was one of the most popular games for both children and adults, at drinking parties or while guarding the herds; as a good-luck charm there were not uncommon in jewellery: they appear set in a ring but also rendered in gold and strung as a necklace from the 7th or 6th century BC.
Palmette, rosette, and lotus, on the other hand, are stylised forms of the palm leaf, the rose (in connection with Aphrodite), and the lily, respectively. Leto gave birth to Artemis and Apollo under a palm tree on Delos. From this tree, Theseus broke off branches for his comrades when they celebrated the victory over the Minotaur. Later, the Athenians dedicated palm twigs to the victor of the Panathenaic Games and the palm tree became ultimately a universal symbol of both athletic and spiritual victory. Again, in Greece, the lily symbolised innocence and chastity on account of her white purity. According to mythology, Hera breast-fed Heracles whilst asleep; drops of milk thus spilt brought the lily into existence.Not only played the lotus an apotropaic role but it was also an erotic symbol. Beechnut pendants are very popular with fringe necklaces, but while Propertius links the beech tree with Pan, Pliny suggests Zeus; the laurel, which became the symbol of honour, fame, freedom and peace, was sacred to the God of Delphi...Thus I've have shortly demonstrated that, in order to acquire an understanding of the subtle symbolism in Greek jewellery, it is necessary to be aware of the deities, and by extension their associated flora and fauna, who appear most frequently in jewellery.


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  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Thank you Dolores, for your kind comments!!! You have perfectly right: the statues made both of gold and ivory are really fascinating and have also something magical; unfortunately, only few examples remain, because all the precious objects were destroyed at the end of the roman Empire. As you surely know, many statues in the Greek temples were chryselephantine, just as the renowned statue of the goddess Athena in the Parthenon!

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Absolutely beautiful! Voted up! You really gave us an education on Ancient Greek jewelry and the pictures were an excellent addition. I have seen chryselephantine, a small statue at a museum and was fascinated. It is so beautiful, the ivory and the gold together creates an almost mystical look.

  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Many thanks, katielatter! Really, I'm glad to share what I know about the ancient history and its fashions, as they were really amazing!

  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Thanks reddog! Often the ancient jewelry is forget by the scholars, much more its symbolism! I'm glad to having opened a new view about it!

  • profile image

    katielatter 7 years ago

    thanks for sharing this information. You gave us new knowledge about the history of jewelries.

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    reddog1027 7 years ago

    a very informative hub. Thanks for opening a window into the jewelery of the ancient Greeks and its symbolism. Beautiful photos!