Ancient Jewelry | Mesopotamia
One of the greatest and most unique innovations in the world that Mesopotamia was the cradle of, was metal-working. Mesopotamian metal working was not limited to accessories, it included tools, functional items, decoration, and art, but there is something about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry that sets it apart from any other in antiquity. Their work was more than just a distinct style or taste. Mesopotamian jewelry was a huge important part of each civilization that rose in the land between the two rivers, and its story is one worth reading.
Jewelry wasn’t a new concept when Sumerians started making it around 2750 BC, but their innovations made their jewelry seem like it was an entirely new invention, and it was produced and newly introduced from that period in time up to the Assyrian period, around 1200 BC. Gold and silver, mostly imported from mines in modern day Turkey and Iran, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and carnelian from India, were used in Sumerian jewelry and demonstrated the extensive trade that was conducted at that time. Jewelry dominated the commerce and trade network during those years. As the cities grew, so did the demand for luxury goods; this created a large trade network and a whole commercial enterprise devoted to jewelry. “Sumerian jewellery fulfilled practically all the functions which were to occur during the course of history. In fact, there were more different types of jewellery than there are today.” – Guido Gregorietti, jewelry historian. Of course, jewelry served as a symbol of personal, social, and political status in Mesopotamia as it always has everywhere else, but it also played a significant role in how the Mesopotamian civilization functioned.
Mesopotamians would always express themselves, their status, and their power through their attire as well as their jewelry. But they took good care of their jewelry designs by maintaining a balance between the aesthetic and the religious symbolism of each piece. Jewelry served as a status symbol for noblemen and noblewomen, and royals, but every member of the society, despite their class and race, always wore some form of jewelry on them. Unlike some of the other ancient civilizations, jewelry was not exclusive to the royals, but rather incorporated into their lifestyle. It was also a fail-safe wedding gift, as well as a commodity used in dowries and inheritances of the upper classes. The bride would be given an inheritance of jewelry along with money and a new wardrobe from her family when she leaves to live with her husband, and the husband was to give his wife fail-safe gifts of jewelry and money before they wed for the security of the bride. Wedding bands and rings, as we know them today, in precious metal form, also were invented in Mesopotamia. They were only worn by women back then, mainly for the purpose of clarifying that a woman was married and belonged to man. Mesopotamian great masters of power and nobility all used gold and precious stones as a symbol of their power. Men wore some jewelry in most occasions as well. They wore earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, pectoral ornaments and headbands. Women wore the same and more, including unique headdresses with foliage and flowers made from sheet gold, chokers, anklets, large necklaces, belts, dress pins, rings on their fingers, and large earrings designed into hoops, crescents, grape clusters, cones, animal and human heads, and geometric shapes. Men also wore rings with writings and symbols on them that represented something religious or political, or served as a stamp or signature. Their rings also held rare stones and gems.
Jewelry and other luxury goods were used as a tool or gift in diplomacy. One of the greatest creations and diplomatic gifts was Al-Jazari's Elephant Clock (that was mechanically powered by water) that the Abbasid caliph Harun AL-Rashid sent to the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne as a gift in 807. It was made of brass and silver and other metals and materials. It was a beauty, and had many elements that referred to other cultures to celebrate diversity. Its base was a wooden carved Indian elephant topped with Arabic figures on its back, then Chinese dragons hanging over their heads, then the Egyptian phoenix on the top. It chimed the hours by dropping small metal balls from the beak of a hawk in the front into the mouth of one of the dragons, then into a brass bowl. Instead of a numbered dial, the clock displayed the time with a silver disk that moved behind twelve holes, and with twelve mechanical brass horsemen that emerged out of small windows. It was a thing of beauty and ingenuity. It was a magnificent creation that many thought was magic because of its complexity.
Jewelry was also the subject of many wars. Some of the jewelry unearthed in Mesopotamia was loot from military campaigns, mostly during the Assyrian period when there were wars.
Mesopotamians also, in the beginning of their time, had very old beliefs and practiced burying the dead with jewelry as an attempt for the ones who passed to go to the afterlife bearing gifts to the gods.
Jewelry was also offered to the gods at temples, and Mesopotamians would adorn their statues and idols with jewelry to make them seem more spiritual and magical.
The people of Mesopotamia pioneered astrology and astronomy, and some worshiped the planets, which were believed to have controlled their fates as individuals, as well as groups. They paired each planet with its own unique gemstone, which inspired the idea of birthstone jewelry. For instance, Blood-stone was worn by Babylonians for protection against their enemies and was also used in divination and fortune telling.
The materials used in Mesopotamian jewelry were copper, gold, silver, and electrum, along with the unique gemstones like agate, carnelian, chalcedony, crystal, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and sardonyx. Other materials they also used were shells and pearls. All these materials were used to make jewelry designs featuring stars, rosettes, leaves, grapes, cones, spirals and ribbons. Seal makers even made cylinder seals.
The ancient land was the cradle of the goldsmith’s art. The craftsmen made most gold and silver items by cutting the precious metals into thin sheets, then shaping them with hammers and other metal working tools. They also made gold chains and were very popular for their goldsmiths’ talent with gold wire. They also engraved, and used many techniques like cloisonné, and filigree. They used casting techniques, repoussé, and granulation, there is no doubt that the talent of the jewelers and the various types of precious stones attest to the epic story of gold. Filigree was one of the most dominant techniques in Mesopotamian jewelry. It was done by welding twisted threads of metal of different thicknesses on a sheet of metal. This technique showed an effect of shadows and colors obtained in the jewels that were set. They also practiced the technique of “open fusion”, which consisted of pouring molten metal into a cavity mold made of stone to fill the empty space. Then after the metal cooled, it adapted to the pre-established shape inside. This was the way the well-known Etruscan Gold jewelry was made.
Ancient Mesopotamian jewelry was produced by Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians, but it was mostly really the achievements of the Sumerians in jewelry making that we marvel at and admire the most. They were the first civilization to open a new chapter for jewelry making, not only for the other Mesopotamian civilizations, but also to all the ancient and modern worlds. I am proud to be part of the culture that descended from Mesopotamia, and I admire the history and wonders of the ancient civilization that brought almost everything I know today to the world.