Today on Museum Bites we’re rolling out the bling. From tiaras to toe rings, we humans have for centuries, pierced, stretched, looped, pinned and poked our bodies with a glittery assortment of baubles and beads.
Jewelry is not just about vanity or self-decoration. It can be practical, symbolic, and provide a rare glimpse into our past. Our oldest jewelry, in particular, provides clues into the history and ethos of our early societies. Join me for a brief look at the wonders of ancient jewelry.
Skull Diggery: Prehistoric jewelry was primarily made from objects found in nature such as feathers, bones, colored pebbles and shells. The oldest known jewelry dates back 100,000 years. A pair of peanut-sized seashells with punctured holes was discovered in Skhul Cave, Israel. It is unclear if these ancient beads were purely decorative, an amulet or signified social or ethnic status, but their discovery rocked the archaeological world. These tiny, no-nonsense beads are a sign that our early ancestors were capable of symbolic behavior–a key factor in human evolution–much sooner than previously believed.
When you put a personal ornament on your body, you are sending a message to other people. It is a silent language, but very powerful.
~Marian Vanhaeren, Archaeologist and Principal Investigator, University College London, UK
Tomb Raider: The majority of our oldest jewelry was discovered in ancient burial sites. Japanese and Korean tombs as far back as 1000 BCE were filled with magatama, comma-shaped jade beads meant to represent the soul. The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians were particularly keen on packing their tombs with gold, silver, lapis lazuli and other precious and semiprecious trinkets. They believed these treasures would ensure an easy transition into the afterlife. Click on this Game of Life post from last October, to learn more about Egyptian burial rites.
Practical Purposes: Much of the jewelry we wear today was originally functional and stylish. Brooches got their start holding pieces of fabric together. Rings and pendants doubled as official seals and carried holy relics, medication and in some cases, poison. Archer’s rings protected thumbs and hairpins not only kept an updo in place but also served as a handy weapon.
Lucky Charms: Many of our ancient cultures crafted jewelry that was meant to ward off evil and bring good luck. Mesopotamians wore stone amulets and made offerings of trinkets to the gods. Egyptians adorned themselves with ankhs and favored beads made of lucky colors blue and green. The Romans donned themselves in jewelry featuring coiling snakes, a symbol of immortality. And the ancient Chinese believed jade would prolong life and preserve one’s body for the afterlife. Check out this Jade Fever post to learn more.
Put a Ring on It: Jewelry also signified a person’s wealth and status. The Egyptians were the first to use wedding rings as a symbol of marital status, beginning in 3,000 BCE. A typical Egyptian groom offered his bride a ring of braided hemp or reeds. A Roman groom, on the other hand, gave his father-in-law a ring, as payment of the bride price. It wasn’t until the 2nd century BCE when Roman brides began receiving their own gold bands.
From the crown jewels to friendship bracelets, the trinkets we use to adorn ourselves reveal much about the influence and impact jewelry has on our culture. That’s a wrap! The hammers and saws are kicking up a racket at my house so next week, we’ll delve into the history of the hammer. Happy Fall!