Bling Through the Ages – A Brief History of Ancient Jewelry

During Sara’s first trip to Tucson, just before she opened Blue Door Beads in 2012, she found a style of bead she’d never seen before: very rare, and extremely unique, Roman glass.

When Sara brought back a few of the strands for the shop, staff members were instantly enamored with the colors and textures of these ancient beads. That got us thinking: which other cultures can brag about having equally gorgeous, ancient beads? We did some treasure hunting, (as well as some research on Roman glass specifically) and here’s what we found:

Roman glass beads.

Roman glass beads.

Area of origin: Roman Empire (including modern-day Israel and other Mediterranean countries)
Approximate time span: 753 – 27 B.C.E., and then again from 64 – 1453 A.D.

Pieces of Roman glass originally belonged to vases, jugs, or other glass vessels. According to bluenoemi-jewelry.com, “The presence of sandy dunes and beaches made ancient Israel one of the largest glass producers of the Roman Empire, and the same sands helped preserve, shape and temper the glass [used today in modern jewelry].  Contaminants manufactured into the glass, in combination with the environment in which the glass has spent hundreds of years, produce vibrant lusters and [unique speckles] in place of the original clarity and transparency.”

According to ehow.com and archaeology.org, the peoples of the Roman Empire used more glass than any other ancient civilization. Glass vessels such as bottles and jars were used for everything from serving & storing food, to pouring libations and sprinkling perfumes on funeral pyres; ashes of the deceased were sometimes collected in glass urns. Archeologists are obviously elated when they find entire vessels, but small shards and chunks of the glass are of little value to them — but the small pieces are the perfect components for jewelers to set into gold, silver, or other metals. (1)

Examples of personal ornaments used by the last European foraging societies.

Examples of personal ornaments used by the last European foraging societies.

Area of origin: Northern Europe
Approximate time span: 8,000 – 5,000 B.C.E.

The most fascinating element about jewelry from this time period: unlike the modern tradition of wearing jewelry for mostly decorative purposes, Neolithic jewelry-wearers were more concerned with advertising to which social group they belonged.

Farmers from this period were known to create jewelry from rocks and shells that they found while working (depending on the region where they farmed), and would often shape beads and pendants into human shapes. Hunters and foragers, however, would typically use bones and teeth from their kills — a pretty good indication of what they did for a living.

Unlike a lot of jewelry throughout history, these specific groups of people did not sell or trade their pieces. Each group valued its own jewelry aesthetic, so wearing each other’s jewelry would have been a faux pas.

Jewelry created with perforated shells have been found in both groups, but in general, there wasn’t much overlap in jewelry style. As stated by Solange Rigaud, a researcher for the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, “It’s clear hunters and foragers in the Baltic area resisted the adoption of ornaments worn by farmers during this period. We’ve therefore concluded that this cultural boundary reflected a block in the advancement of farming—at least during the Neolithic period.” (2)

egyptian_synonym

Gorgeous samples of Egyptian-style jewelry, created using lapis, carnelian, and gold beads.

Area of origin: Ancient Egypt
Approximate time span: 1570 B.C.E. – 600 A.D.

Although the Egyptians didn’t wear very lavish clothing, they did splurge when it came to elaborate jewelry. People from all walks of life wore jewelry; wealthy citizens wore jewelry made from gemstones, precious metals, colored glass, and minerals; those from more humble backgrounds wore pieces made from clay, rocks, animal teeth, bones, and shells.

Like humans from the Neolithic period, ancient Egyptians wore jewelry for more reasons than to just feel fancy. They wore it to protect their health, ward off evil spirits, and bring good luck. According to Shannon Leigh O’Neil of synonym.com, “Certain raw materials, designs and colors were associated with deities or symbolized supernatural powers. For example, carnelian, an orange-red stone, was a color suggestive of blood and therefore gave energy and potency to the ornament.”

Amulets were a particularly popular jewelry element, since Egyptians thought they bestowed good fortune, as well as protective and healing powers. “In particular,” says O’Neil, “amulets offered protection over the dead. Amulets were placed inside a mummy’s wrappings to safeguard the deceased’s journey and ensure a happy, healthy and fruitful afterlife.” (3)

Ornate Greek headdress.

Ornate Greek headdress.

Area of origin: Ancient Greece
Approximate time span: 800 – 150 B.C.

The Ancient Greeks were no strangers to bling! They created a full range of jewelry including necklaces, earrings, pendants, pins, bracelets, armbands, thigh bands, finger rings, and elaborate hair ornaments.

Most pieces were inlaid with pearls and dazzling gems or semiprecious stones, including emeralds, garnets, carnelians, and more. Artists also incorporated colorful enamel inlays that dramatically contrasted with their intricate gold settings.

In addition to animal motifs, Ancient Greek jewelry artists also enjoyed designs of various Greek gods, such as Aphrodite, her winged son Eros, and the eagle of Zeus. Much like the Egyptians, there are records of elaborate jewelry being stored in temple and treasury inventories, and some of the best-preserved samples come from tombs where jewelry was usually placed on the body of the deceased. Some of these pieces were made specifically for interment; however, most were worn during life. (4)

So, there’s your history lesson for the day, Blue Door Beaders! We hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little about the history of ancient jewelry, and we hope you have the pleasure of seeing samples of these amazing pieces in your local museum some day soon!

Source (1): www.ehow.com
Photo courtesy of http://www.happymangobeads.com
Source (2): www.futurity.org
Photo courtesy of Solange Rigaud.
Source (3): www.synonym.com, as well as photo.
Source (4): Wikipedia, as well as photo.

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