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The History of Jewellery: Origins of Jewellery Design





Ancient Jewelry Nassarius Shellbeads

Nassarius Shellbeads: C. Henshilwood, F. d'Errico

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Jewelry From The Dawn of Man


Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

Jewelry in its most basic form has been used since the dawn of of man, in conjunction with the earliest-know use of both clothing, and tools. Evidence of the first humans dates back some 6 to 7 million years, based on a recently discovered skull that was found in the Central African country of Chad. These first humans were nicknamed the "Touma," but very little is known of their lives.

Until recently, researchers had believed that the ability to use/appreciate symbolism did not develop until humans had migrated to the continent of Europe some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but it now appears as though the spark of creativity was ignited far earlier than previously believed.

Before written language, or the spoken word, there was jewelry. In the late 1800s, British archaeologist Archibald Campbell Carlyle said of primitive man "the first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration" [2]. More than just a curio from the past, jewelry, like art, is a window into the soul of humanity, and a poignant reminder of that which separates humankind from the animal kingdom — a desire to capture the essence of beauty, to posses its secrets, and to unlock its mysteries.



Recently discovered mollusk or nassarius kraussianus shells that had been perforated to be strung into beads (photo above, left) are now thought to be some of the oldest known man-made jewelry. This mollusk jewelry was discovered in a cave in Blombos, South Africa, and dates back to the Middle Stone Age, some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.

The word "jewelry" is derived from the Latin word jocale, meaning "plaything," and the word jewel, which was anglicized during the 13th century from the Old French word "jouel." The word "jewelry" (spelled jewellery in European English) is used to describe any piece of precious material (gemstones, noble metals, etc.) used to adorn one's self.


Early Jewelry Function & Design

The first jewelry was made from readily available natural materials including animal teeth, bone, various types of shells, carved stone and wood. It is believed that jewelry started out as a functional item used to fasten articles of clothing together, and was later adapted for use as an object for purely aesthetic ornamentation, or for use as a spiritual and religious symbol.

The first gemstones were probably "gathered" in much the same manner as was food. It is likely that gems were found inadvertently at first, maybe while searching for food by picking through gem-bearing alluvial gravels in a dry river-bead. What must these primitive humans have thought of these dazzeling, yet seemingly useless objects — harder than any other naturally-occurring material, and capturing/possessing the warmth of fire, the brilliance of the sun, or the blueness of the sea and sky.



Peruvian Necklace

Gold, turquoise beads, Peru c.2000 BC

   Petroglyphs in Cholpon Ata Kyrgyzstan

Petroglyphs in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan


As mankind progressed, jewelry was used as a symbol of wealth and status, as well as to protect against harm, ward of evil, and heal ailments. Jewelry was used by early man to adorn nearly every part of the human body, and has been made out of almost every natural material known to mankind.

Prolific jewelry making began with the ancestors of Homo Sapiens. Over 40,000 years ago the Cro-Magnons (c. 45,000 BC—10,000 BC) began to migrate from the cradle of civilization in central Africa to the Middle East, the Indus Valley, and to the continent of Europe. As these early humans traveled the land they collected objects of curiosity, fashioning them into jewelry which would tell the story of their journey.


Jewelry and the 'Golden Age' of the Late Paleolithic Period

Within the paleolithic cave site known as Mas d'Azil, located in the Pyrnes mountains of France, 19th century archaeologist Edouard Piette found crudely fashioned necklaces and bracelets made of bone, teeth, mother-of-pearl, shells and stone that were strung together with a single piece of twine, or possibly a strip of animal sinew. The inhabitants of this site were known as the Azilian culture, and lived in this region between 17,800 and 6,500 BC.

The earliest known metal employed by humans was native, or "free gold" which was found within Spanish caves. Artifacts from Cuevas de Maltravieso (Maltravieso Caves) in Cceres, Spain, and the El Mirn caves in Cantabrian, Spain date back to the "golden age" of late Paleolithic period (c.40,000 BC—10,000 BC).


Metallurgy and Early Man

The earliest signs of crude metallurgy occurred over 10,000 years ago, when humans first began using native copper, meteoric iron, silver and tin to create tools and possibly even jewelry ornamentation. Copper awls that date back to around 7,000 BC have been found on the Anatolia plateau of eastern Turkey. The tools were found at the "pre-pottery" Neolithic Site of ayn Tepesi near the upper Tigris River valley, and the copper appears to have been mined from an ore deposit at Ergani Maden, some 20 km away [18].

These first crude attempts at metalworking appeared to be lest than successful, as the native copper was not annealed (hardened) using cold-hammering, but was instead hammered using pyrotechnology, or the controlled use of fire. The first alloying of metal to make bronze was not developed until around 3,500 BC, ushering in the "Bronze Age."

Unfortunately, the oldest evidence of written language dates back to around 3,000 BC, so the motives, customs and practices of Stone Age humans is subject to interpretation, and vast amounts of speculation. Human behavior was documented in petroglyphs (cave drawings) that are 10,000 to 12,000 years old, but these pictographs are very basic, and their "meaning" is not fully understood.



Until recently it was believed that the Sumerians had developed the first written language in around 3,000 BC, but a recent discovery by a German archeology team has carbon-dated Egyptian hieroglyphic writings (sadly, tax records) that were found in Abydos (near Luxor, Egypt) at approximately 5,300 years of age [22].





Tribal Ethnic Jewelry Books
Asian Ethnic Jewelry Books




Bibliography on the Origins of Ancient Jewelry


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

2. F. Rogers, A. Beard, 5000 Years of Gems & Jewelry. FA Stokes Co., N.Y.

3. Christina El Mahdy, Mummies, Myth and Magic. Thames and Hudson

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

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

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

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

8. John Baines, Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Facts On File Press

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

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

11. Christie Romero, Antique, Period, & Vintage Jewelry www.center4jewelrystudies.org

12. Untracht, Oppi., Traditional Jewellery of India. New York: Abrams

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

15. Pliny., Natural History XXXVI.

16. Neich, R., Pereira, Pacific Jewellery and Adornment.

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

18. T. Garcia, Fire and Metals . www-geology.ucdavis.edu

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

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

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

22. T. Garcia, Egypt home of the first written language? . www.abc.net.au




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