Pair of lion head earrings

3rd century BCE
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General Description

Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, new shapes and materials were introduced to Greek jewelry. The most ingenious innovation of the Greek goldsmiths of this period is the animal-head earring: a tapering, penannular hoop made of twisted wire with one terminal and the larger end in the form of an animal's head. In this example, the hoop, tapering toward one end, is made from twisted hollow tubes and supported by a broad, hollow rod inside. The broad end of the hoop terminates in a large lion's head with baroque features: a high-rising, curly mane and separately-made teeth. Attached to the other end is a small lion's head. The decorative collar joining the large head and the hoop is edged by beaded wire and displays tendrils and ivy leaves rendered in filigree. A strip of sheet gold worked in a simple repoussé tongue pattern forms the outer border. The join between the hoop and the small lion's head is covered on one piece by an embossed tongue pattern in sheet gold, on the other by filigree tongues. The two large lions' heads are not made from the same mold, but are very similar. Only on piece "A" are the eyes pierced.

It has been assumed that this design derived from Etruscan lion-head earrings, represented by several examples seen in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art (1991.75.27.a-b, 1991.75.28.a-b). But besides the fact that there is a gap of nearly 200 years between the Etruscan and these late Classical to early Hellenistic lion-head earrings, the similarities are superficial. It is more likely that the animal-head earring is a genuine Greek creation, inspired by a long-established type of Greek animal-head bracelet, like this lion-head bracelet (1991.75.52), also in the collection of the DMA.

Almost immediately after their introduction, animal-head earrings became the most popular type of ear ornament in the Greek world. The following two centuries saw a number of variations of the basic scheme. Compared to another pair of earrings, a standard version of the same type (1991.75.60.a-b), this pair represents the more flamboyant style of southern Italy where Greek goldsmiths developed variants of the basic concept marked by elaborate hoops and lions' heads with high-rising, fancy manes and ornate faces, as seen here. This example, along with several others in the DMA's collection (1991.75.63.a-b, 1991.75.62.a-b, 1991.75.64), are characteristic examples of this baroque style from Magna Graecia.

Adapted from

Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996), 62-63, 133.

Fun Facts

  • Lions were popular subjects in Greek jewelry; they symbolized fertility and regal power.