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From Shells To Precious Stones | The History of Wearable Art (Part One)

WHEN WE TALK about symbolism, music and other artistic qualities it often seems to be in the context of modern intellectualism. However the truth stands that various early strands of humans have been proven to use ornamentation, maintain belief systems and even create artwork. In short, some of the common practices and traditions we inadvertently adopt today are around 200,000 years old.

Scientists predict that almost 200,000 years ago a squat and heavy-featured creature called Homo-neanderthalensis travelled from Europe to South Western Asia. They were a highly advanced species of stone-spear wielding sapiens that had mastered the use of fire, shelter and were gaining a proclivity for decoration and symbology. The evidence archaeologists have uncovered suggests that these upright-apes were also, to some degree, capable of abstraction, introspection and reflection. In short, they showed early signs of developing the schools of thought that are still prevalent in modern society: philosophy through introspection, history through reflection and religion through abstraction.

In recent years we’ve found ancient Neanderthal images of half-bull and half-man hybrids scrawled across cave interiors, like early manifestations of what would later become the Greek Minotaur. Not only that, but the Neanderthal also supposedly engaged in apotropaic rituals, suggesting that they attributed a dominant natural force the power to shape existence and distribute luck. There is evidence to suggest that hundreds of thousands of years ago species of the Homo Genus were still vexed by death and seduced by the hope of an afterlife. In fact Neanderthals were known to bury their dead, stain human remains with red ochre and mark graves with gifts or grave goods, such as, on one occasion, the mandible of a wild boar. If you like you can also read about how they played music and designed a rudimentary octave scale.

Evidently there is ancient proof of the human soul that can be used as a whetstone to gain a sharpened insight into patterns of behaviour similar to those that still define us today. One example is the use of wearable art to symbolise different states of mind, as well as more bodily urges. The first signs of this can be traced back to Africa; our common birthplace and the once-tropical region that some scientists believe the Garden of Eden was actually based on. Examples of jewellery cut from sea snail shells, such as perforated beads, have been unearthed in the gloom of the Blombos Cave near Cape Town, South Africa. According to our best estimations these beads are around 75,000 years old, which means we’ve been using natural materials to adorn ourselves since then. In Kenya, at the Enkapune Ya Muto, also known as the Twilight Cave, another collection of 40,000 year old beads were found, this time made from perforated ostrich egg shells. A stone bracelet and marble ring were also discovered in Russia from around the same time. In some cases shell or mother-of-pearl was used as a supplementary material. There are also preserved bracelets made of mammoth tusk and many other ivory ornaments, one of which, the Venus of Hohle Fels, is an example of a popular fertility statue. Surprisingly it isn’t a statue at all though and it actually features a subtle perforation on its top suggesting that it was once worn as a pendant.

Of course it wasn’t just bedraggled Neanderthals that were sporting jewellery; some of the earliest Europeans were found to have worn necklaces and bracelets fashioned from bone, teeth, berries and stone. They often suspended these pieces from lengths of string, animal sinew or finely carved bone used to pin fur clothing. While these basic designs were indicative of very early wearable art, it wasn’t until 7000 years ago that copper jewellery finally appeared for the first time. Thereafter the shaping of precious metals became a widespread practice that pervaded a number of ancient civilizations, the earliest examples of which were found in a region once known as the Fertile Crescent.


The Fertile Crescent, also known as Mesopotamia (part of modern Iraq), was framed by two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, which snaked down from the mountains of Armenia into the Persian Gulf. The land varied from regions of grasslands, marshes and mud flats to snow-capped mountains in the rugged north. Cereals like wheat, rye and barley grew in abundance and, approximately 5,000 years ago; it was also home to several primeval cities. It was in these cities that the very first lapidarists expanded the craft of shaping and making jewellery. Examples of their work have been uncovered at various archaeological sites, the most significant of which was the Royal Cemetery of Ur, wherein some of the pieces dated as far back as 2900 BC. Also included in the cemetery was the tomb of Puabi, which, in the archaic Akkadian language, means ‘Word of my Father’. Judging by what was found in the tomb Puabi is believed to have been a figure of great importance in the Sumerian city of Ur. Several cylinders sealed in her tomb identified her by the title ‘queen’, although interestingly this was written in the Sumerian language, which, in light of the fact Puabi was a Semitic Akkadian, suggests that there were close relations between the Sumerians (a culture spread along the Persian Gulf) and their Semitic neighbours. Indeed this is one of the oldest examples of human interdependence and the exchange of human values.


Also recovered from the tomb, which had miraculously been left untouched by grave robbers, were myriad artefacts of Gold and Silver, adorned with semi-precious stones, alongside jewel-headed pins, Golden rings, bracelets, a Golden and Lapis-Lazuli encrusted bearded bulls head, Gold figurines, Gold tableware, Lapis Lazuli cylindrical beads and even a chariot fitted with a lioness’s head made of Silver. The jewellery found on Puabi’s person included a close-fitting necklace and Golden leaf headdress. While most of the designs are quite rudimentary, there are a number of pieces that convey the astounding ingenuity and sophistication of the Sumerians, perhaps best exemplified by this pair of basket-shaped, brazen hair ornaments.

In Assyria – former home of cave-dwelling Neanderthals turned kingdom of the Ancient Near East – there was a highly-advanced people known as the Assyrians. Jewellery played an important role in their society and many amulets, ankle bracelets, heavy multi-strand necklaces and cylinder seals have been uncovered from their burial sites. Assyrian jewellery was delicate, fashioned from metal leaf and encrusted with coloured stones, such as speckled chalcedony or fluted beads of agate, lapis, carnelian and jasper. In terms of design they favoured spiral and conical designs, however they were also prone to artistic flourishes, as is evidenced by their use of grape-bunch shapes. Their keen-eyed lapidarists seemed to specifically hone their pieces for human use, as well as for adorning certain statues and idols. They extended their skill to a variety of metalwork, including cloisonné, engraving, fine granulation and filigree.

The People on the River Nile

We know from hieroglyphic records and paintings that the Egyptians were an industrious and ingenious people. However their prosperity depended on the Nile, the longest river in the world, without which they would’ve been left to the mercy of the naked desert sun and sweltering dune seas. Indeed the Nile was the beating heart that split the sand and the Egyptians used it for fishing, drinking and also to pump water into furrows to irrigate their crops. In light of this it’s not surprising that they revered the Nile as a kind of primordial God.  After all, the Egyptians owed their industry and power to that river; essentially the pillars of their society rose from the water, the traces of which we still preserve today, in the form of mountainous tombs called pyramids. These inexplicable feats of human labour hold the mummified remains of deified Pharaohs and were made by a multitude of slaves who shifted the back-breaking stones with rollers and pulleys, bent to the will of their god-king and the making of his grand funeral bed.


Around 3,000-1000 BCE the art of jewellery making gained greater significance and Gold suddenly came to the fore as a cherished adorning material. In Predynastic Egypt – before the two divided kingdoms were unified under a central government – the upper echelons loved Gold for its rarity, workability and incomparable appearance. They also utilised the allure of Gold to assert power and religious standing in the community. One such example would be this elaborate ram-headed falcon amulet, which was found in the tomb of an Apis bull (a deity symbolic of an ethereal rebirth) and is comprised of Gold, lapis, turquoise and cornelian. Other styles of jewellery were often worn by wealthy Egyptians, even in death, when they were placed amongst assorted grave goods. It’s also known that Egyptian women wore fashionable Gold and Silver pieces and often chose more elaborate jewellery for special ceremonies. Different jewellery materials included coloured glass and semi-precious gems, the colour of which was also taken into consideration. In fact some of the associations they made, such as linking green to fertility, are still upheld today.

The Phoenicians were merchants from the ports of Tyre and Sidon whose nomadic culture caused them to travel far and wide across the Mediterranean seas. They were also the inventors of stylus-incised angular shapes that became a non-pictographic and consonantal alphabet of twenty two letters. In fact the letter ‘B’ remains unchanged today; it is a 3000 year old symbol that still retains the distinctive shape of a butterfly’s wing. In terms of jewellery the Phoenician seafaring culture seemed to prefer Egyptian designs, although they also collected Turkish and Persian pieces. Interestingly we can glean from the different styles they wore that there were efficient trade routes in place between the Middle East and Europe. We can also gather that jewellery was a popular export and coveted very early on in the history of human civilisation.

The Earliest Days of Modern Civilisation

The vestiges of Ancient Greece are preserved in the form of dusty acropolises, amphitheatres and myriad temples that still stand today. Contrary to the stigmatism that now surrounds this in-debt and sunken nation it was once a great civilisation, famed for its art, philosophy, geometry, discipline, sport, sanitation and education. In fact Greek Culture was so advanced that it had a deep-reaching impact on the Roman Empire and has since laid the foundations for the construction of the Western World. Amongst countless other valued modern paradigms, Ancient Greece – specifically Athenian society – is credited with the earliest manifestation of democracy. For the first time power was passed to a small contingent of ‘the people’, excluding slaves, women and foreigners.


It’s no surprise then, given the Greeks propensity for living a deliberate, cultured and refined life, that they were also very fond of jewellery. Like their shaggy ancestors they still used shell-shaped beads and favoured romantic animal forms and natural themes. It wasn’t until 1600 BC that the Greeks first started to utilise Gold and arrangements of precious gems. By 1500 BC, though, they had delved into the potential of Gold and developed skilful ways of manipulating its original shape, making beautiful Gold casts, twisted bars and wire. Jewellery soon became an integral indicator of the ‘high life’, although supposedly it wasn’t until the Mycenaean period (the zenith of Bronze Age Greek culture before its decline) that the jewellery guilds began to flourish. Archaeologists have unearthed an array of items that can be traced to this time, such as this spiralling 16th century BC gold earring found in Mycenae. Other examples include brooches, pins and, of course, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. All these pieces were found in varying styles so innovative that it seems the Greeks had left the earlier Bronze Age designs for dead. It can also be gleaned that were highly adept in their manipulation of Gold. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the papery detail of the 4th century BC ‘Gold Olive Wreath’, which was modelled on the laurel wreath awarded to those athletic champions who were idolised in Greek culture.

According to our archaeological records there was an earlier influx of fine jewellery directly after the Persian Wars. Some of the more popular types of bracelet design in this period incorporated snakes and other animal-heads. These pieces were distinguishable for the fact they used a lot more metal and, for that reason, were often comprised of bronze. By 300 BC, as well as being masters of Gold, the Greeks were also proficient at cutting coloured gems like Amethysts, Pearl and Emeralds. It was around this time that the first cameos appeared, which were created using Indian Sardonyx, a striped, brownish-pink and cream agate. When you see the subtle yet considered beauty of these designs the skilled workmanship of early Greek lapidarists is manifest.

Although jewellery was evidently prolific in Greek culture it was also hardly worn, except for public appearances and on special occasions. In fact the use of jewellery then wasn’t dissimilar to how it’s used today. Often it was presented as a gift or worn by women in order to affirm wealth and social status. In some instances jewellery was valued for its ability to ward off the ‘Evil Eye’, which was supposedly an ancient curse cast by a malignant glare. Similarly it was also believed that jewellery could endow its wearer with superior powers, whilst also doubling as a religious symbol. Older pieces of Greek jewellery have been discovered that seem to have been dedicated to the Gods.

Judging from archaeological findings it seems that the Greeks preferred two leading styles of jewellery: cast pieces and those that were hammered out of sheet metal. The former was made by casting the metal onto two stone or clay moulds, after which the two halves would be joined together before wax, then molten metal, was poured into the centre. This method had been practised ever since the late Bronze Age and remained relatively unchanged. The latter style used by the Greeks, which was a lot more common, was made by hammering sheets of metal to thickness and then soldering them together. Finally the two sheets would be separated by wax or another liquid that would serve to protect the metal work. In some cases a stamp or engraved motif would then be added to characterise the piece. Alternatively jewels would often be fixed to small hollows or glass spilled into cavities on the surface.

There’s a reason why the simple designs of early Greek culture matured and gained so much in terms of diversity later on. Most of their various styles were actually derived from the foreign ingenuity that Alexander the Great’s forces had uncovered in their roaming attempt to reach the ‘Great Outer Sea’ and, thereafter, the edge of the world. Under the yoke of Roman rule Greece began to produce jewellery that was distinctly Roman in appearance. However some native designs were still prolific, suggesting that the earliest styles survived and remained popular.