In Focus

Greek Jewelry

The following is an excerpt from the 1996 publication Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Despite the hazards of time, a surprisingly large amount of Greek jewelry has survived, but it represents only a small fraction of what once existed. When personal ornaments made from gold and silver were no longer wanted by their owners, they were often melted down and the metal reworked into some new object. Greek jewelry has been found in graves, in sanctuaries, where it had been deposited as votive offerings, and in scattered finds in settlements. In later periods, precious objects were sometimes buried for safekeeping, but there is hardly any evidence for the practice from the 6th to 1st centuries BCE, the period of the Greek jewelry in the Dallas Museum of Art Collection. As in other collections, the quantity of material varies for different periods. Some periods are well documented, others poorly. Changing funerary customs account for this uneven distribution of material; personal ornaments were not always buried with the dead.

Pictorial representations and literary sources are helpful in enlarging our picture of Greek jewelry. Painted or three-dimensional representations of personal ornaments are found on early Greek terra-cotta figurines. Wreaths, pins, ear and neck ornaments, and bracelets are shown in vase painting, on coins, and occasionally even on large-scale sculpture. Descriptions of jewelry in the works of Greek authors provide little insight. More revealing are the inventory lists, in which precious objects dedicated to sanctuaries have been recorded. Such lists survive because they were written on marble slabs. These lists mention only the weight of an object in silver or gold, suggesting that in antiquity a piece of jewelry was worth only the value of the precious metal. The cost of working it obviously constituted but a small percentage.

Sophisticated jewelry techniques had been known and used in Mycenaean Greece from the mid-2nd millennium BCE. When the Mycenaean world collapsed toward the end of the millennium, the knowledge was lost. During the following 200 centuries, the so-called Dark Ages, gold was rare, and the little jewelry that survived from this period is of primitive workmanship.

After about 900 BCE, in parts of Greece such as Euboea, Crete, and Athens, commercial contacts with the Near East were renewed. The resulting prosperity is evident in imported luxury articles and locally made gold jewelry found in graves dating to the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. In style and technique, this early Greek jewelry is very much indebted to eastern craftsmen, through whom Greek metalworkers learned new techniques, such as filigree, granulation, and colored inlays. It did not take Greek goldsmiths long, however, to turn the newly acquired knowledge into a purely Greek idiom.

Greek jewelry was produced not only in Greece itself. At an early stage, Greeks settled on the Aegean Islands and on the western coast of Asia Minor, in modern Turkey. The earliest Greek colonies on the northern shore of the Black Sea, in what is now southern Russia, Bulgaria, and Romania, date to the 7th century BCE. At about the same time, Greek cities were founded in southern Italy and Sicily, areas that later were called Magna Graecia. Wherever Greeks went, they took with them their language, their religion, their craftsmanship, and their aesthetic ideas. As a result, jewelry found in the various parts of the Greek world is surprisingly homogeneous. Local particularities are the exception.

There is just enough material to indicate what Greek jewelry of the 8th and 9th centuries BCE looked like, but the 7th century BCE is a lacuna, at least as far as the Greek mainland is concerned. A few grave finds from Corinth, some material from votive deposits in Perachora, near Corinth, and from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, near Sparta, are the rare exceptions. Silver jewelry has been found in graves dating to this century in the Greek colonies in southern Italy and on Sicily. Fibulae, pins, neck ornaments, snake bracelets, plain earrings, and rings are the most common shapes. Jewelry made from bronze, bone and amber is found more often than objects of precious metal.

A completely different picture is represented by jewelry discovered in graves on Greek islands such as Rhodes and Melos, and in the temple to Artemis in Ephesus, the most important sanctuary of the Greeks who settled on the western coast of Asia Minor. This Island or East Greek jewelry, which dates to the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE, at its best betrays a technical and stylistic refinement unknown until then in the Greek world. This jewelry reflects the eastern influences that were so prominent in the Orientalizing period of Greek art, but at the same time the design and craftsmanship are definitely Greek.

At this early period, Greek goldsmiths developed a way of manufacturing a piece of jewelry with the absolute minimum amount of precious material. The basic components from which a piece of jewelry is formed are sheet metal, wire, and, rarely, castings. Most pieces consist of separately made elements that are attached to one another by means of rivets, hinges, or solder.

From the Orientalizing period onward, Greek goldsmiths drew freely from nature. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of East Greek and Island jewelry is the use of figural reliefs and of ornaments and figures worked in the round. Rosettes, scrolls, palmettes, bees and birds, snakes and lions, human figures and heads, all worked in the round, became the hallmark of Greek jewelry.

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), 59.

Related Multimedia

Symposium in conjunction with Golden Treasures of the Ancient World, May 30–September 5, 1999; "God is Zeus’ Child: Precious Metalwork in the Ancient World", Dr. Bromberg, Anne R., Curator of Ancient and South Asian Art, DMA; "Ur of the Chaldees: Inside Woolley’s Excavations at the Birthplace of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham", Dr. Richard Zettler, curator of the Ur exhibition; Curator in charge of Near Eastern Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; "The Gold of Ur: The Socioeconomic Significance", Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Professor of Art and Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; "Eriphyle’s Necklace: The Power of Ornament in Ancient Greece", Mary Louise Hart, Assistant Curator of Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum; "Etruscan Jewelry: New Discoveries, Ancient Functions", Dr. Richard De Puma, Professor of Art History , University of Iowa

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