Jewellery has long formed an important part of personal display, and few places was this clearer than in antiquity. Though quality and quantity of jewellery increases depending in the wealth of the wearer, people from all social strata of many ancient civilisations chose to adorn themselves with jewellery of some description. The first form of jewellery ever found, dating back to the Middle Palaeolithic – 100,000 BC – are beads made from a sea snail, the Nassarius. They were used as adornment but are also thought to have been fertility symbols, highlighting the fact that jewellery could sometimes serve dual purposes.
The Purpose of Jewellery
In every ancient culture which falls under the period ‘Antiquity’, there is evidence of jewellery. Some civilisations have left a greater mark in this sense, usually due to greater wealth or longevity, but it is a common feature of all ancient societies that jewellery seems to have been worn either to display one’s social status, through the quality and quantity of items, or to encourage the favour and protection of the gods.
Jewellery in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt jewellery was highly popular both with men and women and included everything from rings and bracelets to impressive collar necklaces and pectorals. The wealthy wore jewellery made of precious metals and stones, while ordinary people imitated these materials with painted clay, stone and shells. Gemstones such as lapis lazuli and turquoise were especially popular. A land rich in gold, incredible gold artefacts have been uncovered from some Egyptian tombs, though much has likely been lost as a result of earlier intervention. Though their aesthetic value was no doubt important, the Ancient Egyptians also valued the properties they associated with certain gems and symbols, which were believed to give the jewellery special qualities which would protect or bring good fortune to the wearer.
Greek Gold and Gemstones
Though jewellery maintained a consistent popularity throughout Classical Greece, often gifted as prizes in athletic contests, it is in the Hellenistic period when Greek jewellery reached its highest point. The extensive Persian conquests of Alexander the Great brought an enormous amount of wealth and precious resources into Greece, as well as new stylistic influences. A great deal of gold jewellery was produced, set with precious gems such as emeralds, garnets, carnelians, sardonyx, and chalcedony, or brightly coloured enamel inlays. The popularity of rich gold jewellery to adorn not just the living but also the dead in the early Hellenistic period, highlights the impressive degree of excess wealth available.
Rome and Byzantium
During the Roman Republic, social values of moderation and restraint and the financial strain caused by the Second Punic War, meant that elaborate jewellery, particularly gold, became relatively uncommon. Under the Empire, however, these values quickly fell away, with power politics being directly expressed through one’s personal appearance. Constant expansion over the centuries, beginning with the Augustan conquest of Egypt brought the wealth and resources to produce beautiful works of jewellery, and the tenuous politics of the Empire gave jewellery the potential to play a political, as well as a aesthetic, role. Additionally, as Christianity rose to prominence in the Late Empire, jewellery became a medium through which to express one’s religious beliefs, with Christian imagery appearing commonly on jewellery from this period and Byzantium.