Guide to the History of Ancient Jewelry [Updated]
The history of jewelry tells us a lot about the people who lived before us. Each era of jewelry making and wearing reflects the cultural, economic, social, and even political trends of the time. Because we have few written records of people living long ago, artifacts like jewelry are important to understanding the values and artistic capabilities of early societies.
Our ancient ancestors used jewelry for fashion, good fortune, religious purposes, and as status symbols. Prehistoric groups and early civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Indus Valley of modern Pakistan and India wore their own unique jewelry made of meaningful materials. The history of ancient jewelry is a fascinating and complex topic that deserves to be discussed in detail here.
- English (Publication Language)
- 256 Pages - 09/12/2008 (Publication Date) - Firefly Books (Publisher)
Jewelry in Prehistory
Prehistoric people made and wore jewelry made of everyday materials found in nature. Feathers, stones, claws, talons, teeth, bones, and shells were easy to find and had value to early people. The remains of animals were thought to bring good luck to the hunter and showed off his capabilities.
While it is not known exactly when prehistoric people began to create and wear jewelry, we do have evidence of jewelry made before the dawn of Homo sapiens. The Denisovans were a precursor to Neanderthals and modern humans who lived over 100,000 years ago. They left behind a chlorite bracelet in Siberia, which is one of the oldest pieces of jewelry yet discovered.
Other truly ancient evidence of jewelry in prehistoric times include 100,000 year old shells in present-day Israel, Kenyan ostrich shell jewelry dating back 40,000 years ago, a bone necklace discovered in Monaco made about 25,000 years ago, and gold jewelry fragments from the Varna civilization in Bulgaria who lived around 4400-4100 BCE.
Ancient Mesopotamian & Egyptian Jewelry
The Mesopotamians are well known for their advanced culture, so it is no surprise that they began making jewelry quite early in the history of human civilizations. Stone amulets have been discovered in modern-day Iran dating to 3000 BCE. These were thought to carry special powers and protect the wearers from everyday dangers and maladies.
Most Mesopotamian jewelry was crafted from thin metal sheets, and Mesopotamian jewelry makers used techniques like engraving, filigree, granulation, and cloisonné to decorate and personalize each piece. Common design elements included grapes, branches, leaves, and other natural imagery.
Ancient Egyptians also enjoyed creating and wearing jewelry. Common materials included gold, platinum, and a range of gemstones like lapis lazuli, amethyst, carnelian, turquoise, and green feldspar. The Egyptians prized colorful gemstones, assigned meaning to each one, and paired different gems with the planets as an ancient version of birthstones.
Like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians believed that the jewelry they wore daily possessed magical properties based on the stones used. Jewelry could protect them from evil, disease, and general misfortune. The imagery used for accessories also enhanced the healing and protective powers of the pieces, with animals, insects, flowers, gods and goddesses all being common motifs.
Jewelry in Ancient China & India
Jewelry also existed in the ancient civilizations of East Asia. It is estimated that the Chinese began crafting jewelry as early as 5000-3000 BCE. Common materials included gold, silver, and jade, which was a highly valued stone and used widely in Chinese art. Chinese jewelry makers were highly skilled, and the techniques they relied on included cloisonné, engraving, inlaying, jade carving, enameling, and precious metal threading.
The area of modern-day India and Pakistan is also the home of ancient jewelry artifacts. The earliest known jewelry is from the Mehrgarh settlement in what is now Pakistan and dates back to around 6500 BCE. Jewelry discovered in this location was crafted from soft stones, shells, and seeds.
Between 2600 and 1900 BCE, the people of the Indus Valley civilization had mastered creating bronze, copper, gold, and silver accessories. They are also credited with being the first to mine diamonds.
The ancient people of India and Pakistan wore jewelry from head to toe. Due to the cultural, religious, and geographical diversity of this region, jewelry in ancient times was quite varied and unique to different groups.
Ancient Greek & Roman Jewelry
The Greeks and Romans also wore copious amounts of jewelry. Popular accessories included crowns, hairpins, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Gold and precious gemstones were combined to create ornate designs. Cameo, pearl, and coin jewelry was especially prized.
Jewelry was worn for several purposes in ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The first was to honor gods and goddesses by depicting them on earthly items and wearing them daily. The second main reason jewelry was so important was because it displayed a person’s wealth and social status. The upper classes wore the finest jewels and flaunted them openly.