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The History of Jewellery: Minoan & Ancient Greek Jewelry

Cycladic & Minoan Jewelry

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

Many of the artistic skills that the ancient Greeks or Mycenae (1600-1100 BC) possessed were inherited from artisans of the Minoan civilization that preceded the Mycenae by several hundred years, and the Cycladic civilization that inhabited this part of the Aegean Sea since 4000 BC. The Minoans lived on the Mediterranean islands of Crete and Thera (modern-day Santorini), and in Anatolia (Turkey) from 2700 BC to 1600 BC (Early Bronze Age).

Within the ruins of Cycladic and Minoan cities on Crete, archeologists have found bronze and copper ingots as evidence of advanced smelting techniques. The gold repoussé sculpture of an ibex shown below (left) is an example of the metalwork from the Late Cycladic period (Early Bronze Age) on Thera.

Minoan Gold Ibex Sculpture

Minoan gold ibex sculpture

   Map of the Mycenae Civilization

These early metalworking skills were used to create intricate jewelry such as the gold "Minoan bee" pendant (below, right) from the tomb at Mallia (Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Iráklion, Crete). Although the Etruscans are generally credited with the invented the metalworking technique known as granulation, this method does appear in jewelry of the Late Minoan period, which predates Etruria by several centuries. Granulation uses finely grained "shot" gold to create delicate patterns and textures.

The Minoan culture ended abruptly, possibly brought on by the devastating volcanic eruption of Thera's Stroggilí volcano, around 1620 BC. The eruption of Thera's volcano sent two-thirds of the island into the stratosphere, causing major earthquakes, and 110 foot to 490 foot tsunamis throughout the Mediterranean. This event may have been the inspiration for the lost city of Atlantis, written about in one of Plato's dialogues entitled Timaeus and Critias, written by in 360 BC.

Despite the devastation wrought by Thera's volcano, significant Late Minoan remains have been found above the ash layer, indicating that the eruption may not have caused an immediate end to their culture. Soon after the eruption however, the Minoans were conquered by the Mycenaean, during what is known as the Late Minoan II period, around 1450 BC.

Jewelry of the Mycenaean Civilization

By the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, Mycenae was one of the major centers of the Greek civilization, which was centered around Argolis in the Peloponnese peninsula of western Greece. The Mycenaean period of Greek history (aka: Bronze Age Greece) lasted around 500 years, from c.1600 BC to c.1100 BC.

The wealth and power of the Mycenaean civilization was well documented in Homer's Iliad, where King Agamemnon led the Greek army against Troy. The solid gold funeral mask known as the "Mask of Agamemnon" (below, left) was found within the shaft graves at Mycenae, by a German treasure hunter named Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876.

Mask of Agamemnon

Mask of Agamemnon - National Archaeological Museum

   Minoan Bee Pendant

Minoan Bee Pendant (Mália, Crete 1800-1700 BC)

The collapse of Mycenaea coincided with the fall of several other large empires, notably the Egyptian and Hittite. The so-called "Greek Dark Ages" (c.1100-800 BC) were the period in Greek history between the end of the Mycenaean civilization in the 11th century BC, and the rise of the Greek city-states in the 9th century BC.

The Ancient Greek City-States

It was during the 9th and 8th centuries that power concentrated around the individual city-states of Athens, Corinth, Macedon, Sparta and Thebes. Just as the European Renaissance would bring and end to the Dark Ages in the 13th century, this period marked the dawn of a golden age of democracy, art, architecture, drama, philosophy and science. The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC, at the city Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula.

The concept of money and coinage was introduced by the Greeks in the 6th and 7th century BC, replacing the barter system of commerce. Coins were probably introduced in the Greek regions of Caria, Ionia and Lydia (Ephesus, Turkey), although the Lydian coins had no writing on them, making them difficult to date. Early Ionian and Lydian coinage was made from gold, or a natural gold alloy called electrum.

Jewelry Design Motifs of Ancient Greece

Early Mycenaean Age Greek jewelry consisted of simple beads carved into shell or animal forms. The Greeks started using gold and semi-precious stones in their jewelry around 1400 BC (late Bronze Age). Ivory carving, which was popularized by the Minoans, was also common during this period.

Treasury of Athens at Delphi

Treasury of Athens at Delphi

   Mycenae Gold Jewelry

Mycenae gold repoussé ornamentation c.1580 BC

A popular Greek design motif was the Herakles knot, also known as the "knot of Hercules," or "marriage-knot," which was influenced by the ancient Egyptians, and later adopted by the Romans. This apotropaic (Greek apotropaios) knot design depicted two intertwined ropes that were used as a wedding symbol ("tying the knot"), or as a protective amulet to ward off evil.

The Greeks where the first to use the cameo and intaglio (en cabochon) gem cut, carving a portrait into a piece of stratified agate called Indian, or Oriental sardonyx. The finest banded sardonyx was required to have at least three layers consisting of a black base, an intermediate zone of milk-white chalcedony, and an exterior layer of brown, tan or red sard. The image was carved into the upper white strata of the stone, leaving the darker layer as the background.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens


National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Early Greek jewelry employed simple designs and workmanship which made them distinct from the ornate styles of other Mediterranean cultures, although as time progressed, their designs techniques, and variety of materials grew in complexity. Greek jewelry was mostly about the metalwork however, and they were not as fond of gemstones as their contemporaries. Jewelry items consisted of diadems (headbands), bracelets, brooches, earrings, hairpins, pendants, necklaces and tassels. Clothing was held together by gold clasps, buttons or pins.

The ancient Greeks were fond of pendant earrings and necklaces adorned with the images of doves, or the gods Eros and Nike. Amphora pendants were lightly embellished with gemstones or enamel, hanging from a rosette usually topped by the crown of Isis.

Greek necklaces were made of strap-chain with dangling fruit or calyxes (above, left), or round chain adorned with an animal's head clasp or dolphin clasp. The necklaces often held a multitude of filigreed amphora bangles, all attached to a chain that was suspended by a series of smaller chains.

Gold wreaths were worn as headdresses decorated with acorns, flowers and laurel leaf foliage, adorned with figures of Eros and Nikes. The laurel leaf was sacred to Apollo, the god of intellect and light, and the laurel wreath was used as a crown of honor for heroes and scholars (above, right). Some Greek earring designs were so complex and large that they were probably suspended from the diadem.

The Acropolis in Athens


Heracles Knot (Pontika 300 BC) - Matthias Kabel

Greek rings were accented with a bezel-set carved glyptic seal-stone or other semi-precious stones, and used with hot wax to seal important documents.

Gemstones of Greece

The ancient Greeks were fascinated by geology and gemstones, believing that only four elements comprised the observable universe: air, earth, fire, and water, and that metals and minerals were water elements. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371-287 BC), who was the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school, declared gemstones to be "solidified lynx urine," theorizing that they "grew" wherever the lynx relieved itself.

Gems were imported into Greece from every location along the ancient Silk Road, from Asia Minor to the Indian Subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and the Far East. These jewels included such exotic materials as emerald, ruby, sapphire, and topaz, as well as semiprecious gems from the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa.

Hellenistic Greece

During the 3rd century BC, Athens and Sparta led the way in repelling the Persian Empire, and under the leadership of Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon), ushering in the Hellenistic age.

The Hellenistic age (330-27 BC) marked the end of political independence for the Greek city-states after the conquests of Alexander the Great. During this period Alexander dramatically expanded the empire, conquering the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. This expansion and assimilation brought about significant changes in the style of Greek architecture, clothing, and jewelry.

During the Hellenistic age many new types of jewelry were introduced, and the use of gold increased dramatically during this period [14]. The extensive use of semi-precious and precious stones, such as amethyst, chalcedony, cornelian, garnet, pearls, peridot, ruby and rock crystal were employed, although less costly jewelry used glass paste as a substitute for more expensive stones.

With the advent of new stone carving techniques gems were now being engraved with intricately designed patterns, and this would carry over to the emerging Roman culture to the west.

The Hellenistic era was ultimately brought to a close only two centuries later. In 202 BC, Rome defeated Carthage, marching eastward to Macedon. In 146 BC, the establishment of Roman rule was finalized, leading to the annexation of the classical Greek heartlands by Rome.

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Bibliography on Ancient Greek Jewelry

1. Ian Shaw, Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt . Oxford University Press

2. Carol Andrews, Ancient Egyptian Jewelry. Harry N. Abrams Press

3. Joan Aruz, Art of the First Cities . Metropolitan Museum of Art

4. Virginia Schomp, Ancient Mesopotamia: Sumerians, Babylonians, & Assyrians . Franklin Watts

5. Caroline Perry, Jewelry Inspired by Ancient Cultures . Running Press

6. Vivienne Becker, Art Nouveau Jewelry . Thames & Hudson;

7. Andrew Oliver, Patricia Davinson, Ancient Greek & Roman Jewelry . Brooklyn Museum

8. Elena Neva, Types and Forms of Ancient Jewelry from Central Asia . www.transoxiana.org

9. History of Jewellery . wikipedia.org

10. Nassau, K., Gems made by man. Gemological Inst of America

11. Pliny., Natural History XXXVI.

12. Tyler Adam, Mesopotamian Jewelry . www.tyler-adam.com

13. Crystal Links, Ancient Greek Culture . www.crystalinks.com

14. Getty Museum, Hellenistic Period . www.getty.edu

15. Lisbet Thoresen, Gem Archaeology . ancient-gems.lthoresen.com

16. Ancient-Greece.org, Mallia Archaeological Site . www.ancient-greece.org

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