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The History of Jewelry: Jewellery of Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, Sumeria & Babylonia

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

Considered to be one of the cradles of civilization, the Mesopotamian, or "Sumerian" culture flourished from the pre-pottery Neolithic (Hassuan) period of around 8,000 BCE, through the Late Bronze Age of around 1,200 BCE. Mesopotamian civilization relied on the life-giving rainfall of the region's "Fertile Crescent," and by the Ubaid period, around 5,000 BCE, village settlements began to spring up near the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in present-day southern Iraq.

The first great city of the Sumerian culture was Eridu (present-day Tell Abu Shahrain, Iraq), which may have been founded as early as 5,400 BCE. Until recently, it was believed that the Sumerians developed the first written language [6], but this is now being attributed to the ancient Egyptians. After a long succession of ruling dynasties beginning with the First Dynasty of Kish, and ending with the Third Dynasty of Uruk, the first great empire arose in the land of Sumer. The Akkadian Empire was founded by Sargon of Akkad (aka: Sargon I, Sargon the Great) who ruled from 2270 to 2215 BCE.

Map of Mesopotamia

   Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Hanging Gardens of Babylon c. 16th century

Towards the end of the Akkadian Empire, king Ur-Nammu (2112—2095 BCE) ushered in the 3rd dynasty of Ur (aka: Ur III, or the "Sumerian Renaissance"), and a complex network of trade developed around the city of Ur. After the fall of Ur III, greater Mesopotamia was ruled by the Amorites (1953-1730 BC), then by the Babylonian Empire (1728—1686 BC) which ruled the lower Mesopotamian marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Babylon), and the Assyrians who ruled upper Mesopotamia from the city of Assur along the Upper Tigris river near Anatolia. In around 1180 BC, the Assyrians were conquered by the Hittites, who had ruled the Central Anatolian plateau since the 18th century BC, but to the south, Babylonia continued to flourish.

Assyria and the Gold of Nimrud

Perhaps one the greatest surviving treasure-troves of ancient jewelry and artifacts is the so-called "Gold of Nimrud," or Nimroud, which was found in the tombs and throne-room of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. The Nimrud complex was situated to the south of the ancient Assyria capital of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul, Iraq), along the Tigris river. Although the ruins at Nimrud was discovered in 1848 by a British archeologist named by Sir Austen Henry Layard, the treasures that were hidden beneath the ruins lay undisturbed until 1988, when an Iraqi archaeologist named Muzahim Mahmud noticed that floor tiles within the ruins had been relaid at some point in the distant past.

In terms of their sheer volume and wealth, the treasure hoard at Nimrud has been compared to that of Egytian king Tutankhamen. Astonishingly, these treasures were also overlooked by the ancient Medes and Scythians, who had sacked the Nimrud palace in 612 BC.

Portal Guardian from Nimroud

Painting of Nimrud by Austen Henry Layard (left), Portal Guardian from Nimroud (right)

In one tomb alone, there were over 450 items of gold and silver jewelry weighing around 22.5 kilograms! These included a single gold crown and diadem, 14 amulets, 79 earrings, 90 necklaces, 30 rings, and 15 gold or rock-crystal vessels. The Nimrud treasures were on display in the Assyrian galleries of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad until 2003, when the museum was looted during the Iraq invasion. Some of the treasures were spirited off to wealthy collectors in Europe, but many of the items were hidden for safe keeping, and are now on display as part of the touring "Gold of Nimrud" exhibit [14, 15].

Many historians believe that the great Akkadian emperor Sargon of Akkad was the inspiration for the mythical figure Nimrod, who was a Mesopotamian monarch mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Nimrod, who's name is derived from the Hebrew word marad, meaning "rebel," was credited for constructing the "Tower of Babel" [16], which was an ancient ziggurat, or man-made "mountaintop" with a temple at its peak.


The city of Babylon was transformed into one of the "seven wonders of the ancient world" under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 630—562 BC) from the Chaldean Dynasty. The city became famous for the "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," shown in the speculative 16th century engraving by Dutch artist Martin Heemskerck (above, right). The city made for a tempting target, and in 539 BC, Babylon was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great, who breached the city's fortified walls and its infamous Ishtar Gate. Under the Persian king Darius the Great, Babylon became the capital city of the 9th Satrapy of Persia.

Mesopotamian Jewelry

Mesopotamian jewelry was constructed from bronze, gold, silver, and the natural alloy known as electrum, which was imported from Lydia (Anatolia). Exotic gemstones such as agate, chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, onyx, lapis lazuli, and sardonyx were not locally produced [3], and had to be imported from such far-away lands as Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia (Iran and Afghanistan). Jewelry production extended from the cities of Akkad and Assur in Assyria, to the Babylonian cities of Nineveh, Sumer, and Ur.

Sargon I of Akkad, aka Nimrod? (left) c. 2300 BC

   Lion from the Ishtar Gate

Lion from Babylon's Ishtar Gate reconstruction

Raw materials such as ivory, lapis lazuli and exotic hardwoods, as well as carved carnelian beads were also purchased from Harappan merchants who sailed over 1,500 miles from the Indus Valley [4].

Jewelry in Mesopotamia was worn liberally by both women and men, and popular items included multi-strand necklaces of carnelian and lapis (photos below), gold earrings, hair ribbons made from thin gold leaf, ankle bracelets, silver hair rings, gold medallion pendants with elaborate filigree, signet rings, cylinder seals, and amulets.

Mesopotamian Jewelry from Ur

Mesopotamian Jewelry - Metropolitan Museum of Art

   Mesopotamian Jewelry from Ur

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Popular jewelry design motifs in Mesopotamian included leaves, twigs and bunches of grapes, or cone and spiral shaped objects and pendants. Jewelry craftsmen employed a wide variety of metalworking techniques such as cloisonné enameling, engraving, granulation (later history), filigree and repoussé. Jewelry was made for human use, as well as for adorning statues and idols.

The Babylonian cylinder seal was a type of signet stone that was one to three inches long, and carved with an elaborate intaglio design that depicted both mythical scenes, and a unique personal signature [8]. Text was in cuneiform which was the written language of the Sumerian, Akkadian and Elamite cultures. These cylinder seals were typically made from chalcedony, jasper, serpentine or soapstone. These cylinders were used to mark/seal shipments that were destined for some distant land along the ancient Silk Road.

The use of signets or personal seal-stones may have also been responsible for creating the art of gem-carving known as "glyptic art." Glyptic carvings were used on ring-stones which were worn by men, women and children. The ancient lapidary would use emery fragments or flint to carve softer stones, and rotary tools driven by a bow were used on harder materials.

Jewelry was buried along with its male or female owner, and in the Royal tombs at Ur an extensive amount of jewelry was uncovered in the graves of both noblemen and noblewomen.

The Mitanni

The Mitanni and Hurri were two of several minor kingdoms that were founded by the Indo-Iranians in Mesopotamia and Syria. These Indo-Iranian empires were centered in northern Mesopotamia, and flourished from about 1500 BC to 1360 BC. The Indo-Iranians were probably members of Aryan tribes that later settled in the Indus Valley, but they broke off and migrated to Mesopotamia where they settled among the Hurrian peoples becoming the ruling noble class, called the maryannu.

The Phoenicians

The Phœnician civilization was a maritime trading culture whose influence spread across the eastern Mediterranean between 1550 BC and 300 BC. The Phoenicians were based in Canaan, in the city-states of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon and Israel), and Sidon (modern-day Syria).

The name "Phœnicia" was derived from the Latin word punicus, and the Greek word phoînix, for the purple dyes they manufactured. They were particularly well known for their highly-prized Tyrian purple dye (aka: royal purple, imperial purple), and indigo dye (aka: royal blue or hyacinth purple), which were made from the glandular secretions of a predatory sea snail (gastropod) known as Haustellum brandaris (Murex brandaris).

Phoenician traders would deal in exotic gems and materials that were imported from Asia Minor and the Orient, via the Silk Road. The Phoenician culture was known for the art of granulation which they learned from the Etruscans. The Phoenicians were also known for their interesting glass beadwork motifs, sometimes taking the form of a simple mosaic, and sometimes taking the form of whimsical bearded seafarers. In fact, the Phoenicians may have been the first culture to develop the technique of glass core-forming. It was in this region that the technique of glass-blowing may have been invented during the 1st century BC.

Tribal Ethnic Jewelry Books
Asian Ethnic Jewelry Books

Bibliography on Ancient Jewelry of Mesopotamia

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

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

3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Royal Graves at Ur . www.metmuseum.org

4. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization . www.voiceofdharma.com

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

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

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

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

9. Michael Delahun, Mesopotamian Art . www.artlex.com

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

11. Lillian Helstad, Sacrifices in the Sumerian Culture sjsu.edu

12. Clare Phillips, Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present . Thames & Hudson

13. Mysterious World, Nimrod, King of Sumer . www.mysteriousworld.com

14. Martin Bailey, The Gold of Nimrud . www.nineveh.com

15. Andrew Lawler, Treasure Under Saddam's Feet . www.discovermagazine.com

16. Dr. David Livingston, Who Was Nimrod? . www.ancientdays.net

17. The Bead Study Trust . www.beadstudytrust.org.uk

18. Three kinds of Phoenician glass . www.cartage.org.lb

19. Encyclopedia Phoeniciana, Phoenicianan Crafts . www.phoenicia.org

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