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Jewelry History-Jewelry Treasures of the Ancient Middle East and Mediterranean

Updated on August 23, 2011
Byzantine Style Articulated Necklace
Byzantine Style Articulated Necklace | Source

While the Ancient Egyptians are perhaps the best known jewelers of the ancient world, many other cultures produced jewelry and possessed talented metal smiths during this period. The Egyptians had access to many gold mining sources, probably the majority of the mining areas in the known western world and Middle East. Work that shows advanced skills exists from around 3000 BCE in some other cultures.

One of the great gold treasures of the ancient world was discovered in excavations of the ancient city of Ur, in the 1920s and 1930s. A team excavated over 1800 tombs, at this site, a little over 100 miles southeast of Babylon. One of the tombs was that of Puabi, a Queen or Priestess of the kingdom, and it was a rare example of an undisturbed tomb, circa 2600 BCE. A massive gold crown or headdress was found, beautifully wrought in gold., along with rings and bracelets. There was also gold tableware, and beads made of gold, carnelian, and lapis, materials also favored by the Egyptians. Some of the items from this excavation were stolen when the National Museum in Baghdad was pillaged in 2003.

When the kingdom of ancient Judah was conquered, Nebuchadnezzar II took most of the skilled workers to Babylon, including the metal smiths, indicating the importance of these craftsmen in the ancient world.

Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean

The Minoan Civilization began on Crete during this same period, and is sometimes regarded as the first civilization in what is modern day Europe. The legendary King Minos is said to be the son of Zeus and Europa in Greek mythology. The Minoans were seafaring people and traded in the gold from the mines of Iberia, in modern day Spain. They soon mastered gold smithing, and beautiful tomb jewelry has been found, dating from about 2400 BCE. Their civilization went into decline, probably disrupted by volcanic activity, around 1500 BCE, and the Mycenaeans became the dominant culture in that area. Heinrich Schliemann, who also excavated Troy, conducted excavations at Mycenaea around 1875, uncovering golden tomb treasures.

By 1500 BCE, seafaring civilizations dominate the Mediterranean, and ideas and designs flow from one culture to another. Skilled worker in a craft might leave their homeland, travelling to far away kingdoms where their skills are better utilized. Goldsmiths from Egypt worked for King Darius of Persia, around 500 BCE, and were found in the Rome of the first century. Some historians say that the gold working skills of the ancient Minoans were learned by the Mycenaens, then passed on by the Phoenicians, who brought the skills back to Greece around 800 BCE. This is about the same time the Etruscan Civilization began to blossom.

Change moved as quickly as the fastest ship in the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Etruscans

The Etruscan culture flourishes in the latter part of the first millennium BCE. Fine granulation work in gold was mastered by these people, and was imitated in 19th century Europe, by makers such as Castellani and Giuliano. While Castellani and his sons came very close to the look of the granulation work of the ancient Etruscans, it should be noted that the techniques the ancient Etruscans used were not truly duplicated until the 1930s. The Etruscans probably introduced gold coinage to the Romans, who later absorbed Etruscia. The Romans were at first a bit austere, but developed great decorative arts. By 200 BCE, they were mining the gold of conquered Iberia.

The Byzantines

The Byzantine Empire was originally the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, and styles and workmanship were comparable. After the fall of Rome, Byzantium produced more and more unique work. Located at a crossroads of the world, influences from Europe, the Middle East, and from the Steppes and the Far East reached the Empire. The modern karat gold system is derived from a Byzantine coin, the solidus, which was divided into 24 keratia. The solidus was a real coin, but the keratia seems to exist only as a bookkeeping notation for something worth 1/24 of a solidus.

When one of the kings of Byzantium died, around 500 CE, the royal treasury had 320,000 pounds of gold on hand. Gold produced in Europe in the beginning of the common era often found its way to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, where it purchased silks, spices, and other treasures of the East. The western Europeans used coinage of silver and other metals, due to this shortage and exodus of gold. Byzantine style influenced the smiths and jewelers of Europe. Religious jewelry and objects seem to have been made from around the 500 CE by the Byzantines.

While the masterpieces of these periods are mostly tucked away in Museums, the styles have come down through the ages. Modern craftspeople have been inspired by and adapted the designs of all these civilizations.

The Thieves of Baghdad

On a sad note, museums have not always been able to safeguard the treasures of the past. As mentioned earlier, some of the treasures of Ur were displayed in the National Museum of Baghdad, and disappeared when the museum was sacked in 2003. It had survived the first Gulf War, although many regional museums had been looted during and after that war. Few of those items were ever recovered.

The collections of this museum had started with the collection of one woman, Gertrude Bell. Bell had a massive impact on the shaping of modern Iraq and in the preservation of ancient antiquities. A friend of King Faisal and a confidant of T. H. Lawrence, she provided strategic information for the British during World War I, and her opinions were a major consideration in post-war settlements. The one-room collection grew to fill over 20 galleries, with artifacts spanning a period of 10,000 years. Some of the earliest examples of a written language and of codes of law were preserved in the museum.

Thousands of items were looted after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Many larger architectural artifacts, while too large to be stolen, were damaged. One of the largest collections of seals, over 5800 objects, disappeared. Unconfirmed stories exist of these items surfacing in shops and in the hands of collectors worldwide. Records and equipment was destroyed and stolen. One of the greatest collections of gold artifacts was preserved. Over 600 gold artifacts had been unearthed at Nimrud, much of it as recently as 1988. This collection, seldom seen or recorded, may be the greatest collection of gold artifacts from the peak of the Assyrian Empire. This treasure had been moved to a bank vault before the first Gulf War. They were recovered, immersed in more than a half million gallons of water, in July of 2003.

A general amnesty caused many items to be returned, in garbage bags and the trunks of cars. Other items have been recovered, from burials in farmyards and immersion in cesspools. There has been talk of these treasures, including the Gold of Nimrud, being put on tour since 2003, but insurance and security issues have prevented any major displays.

Matthew Bogdonos, the U.S. Marine charged with recovery efforts has written a book on the matter, Thieves of Baghdad. Another excellent volume is The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, edited by Milbray Polk and Angela M. H. Schuster.

Cultural treasures of this kind, documenting the rise of civilization itself, belong to the world. Items that are legitimately in the hands of collectors are often still available for research and placed on loan to museums. Stolen artifacts fall into an underworld, never to be seen again, hoarded by truly selfish people. They now possess a unique part of our history that will never be shared with us again. And the profits go to criminals and middlemen, often those engaged in other illegal and violent activities.

Never condone or support this type of activity, and always treasure your opportunities to see the pieces of the past that have been preserved and shared with you. Support the activities of museums, whether they feature treasures of the ancient world or simply preserve the more recent history of your own community.

Etruscan Style Revival Earrings, c. 1870
Etruscan Style Revival Earrings, c. 1870 | Source
Byzantine Style Bib Necklace
Byzantine Style Bib Necklace | Source


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