In Focus

Ancient Gold Jewelry: The Spread of Imagery

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

Gold, the undying metal, came close to being a metaphor for the undying gods in the ancient world. As a rare and valuable material whose readiest sources were on the fringes of the Mediterranean world, in Thrace, Anatolia, the Caucasus, India, and eastern Africa, gold was treasured as were gemstones, ivory, precious resins, rare woods, and amber. Such valuable raw materials were devoted to the most expensive artworks and to objects with religious virtue, such as cult statues. Moreover, gold, which was easily worked and essentially indestructible, remained throughout antiquity a medium for royal equipment and luxurious ornaments that were buried with their owners. The jewelry and gilded furnishings of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt and the spectacular Greek-made gold ornaments buried with Scythian chieftains in the tomb mounds of southern Russia are only some of the most striking examples of precious gold workmanship consigned to darkness, in order to accompany the spirit of the dead person in the afterworld.

Because gold ornaments were so widely buried with the dead, it is possible to follow in great detail the development of ancient jewelry styles. And because these pieces were made as much for religious, magical, or symbolic reasons as for ornamental ones, gold jewelry embodies the mythology of antiquity. Earrings reflect the magic compulsion of desire in Aphrodite or Eros. Bracelets and rings call upon the sacred snakes of the underworld deities. Lions, emblems of royal power and fertility in nature, are frequent figures in bracelets, rings, and earrings. Gods such as Dionysus or Athena are often represented, whether as protective amulets or as charms for their worshippers.

One view of gold in the ancient world was prosaic; it was wealth: "And in this way a distribution was made of the Persian concubines, the gold, the silver, the beasts of burden and all the other valuables" (Herodotus, Histories, book 9, line 81). The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite illustrates another view, that of gold's affinity with the divine world: "She wore a dress brighter than the flames of fire, Spiral bracelets, gleaming flower earrings and Beautiful necklaces on her delicate neck, All of gold, superbly wrought." (lines 86-90).

The important group of gold ornaments at the Dallas Museum of Art from the European collector Dr. Athos Moretti is rich in major types of Greek and Etruscan jewelry from the 7th to the 1st centuries B.C.E. There are a few Roman imperial works, to which has recently been added a highly coloristic gold and garnet necklace from the Roman Near East (1995.26). In exquisite miniature, these ornaments reflect the stylistic history of more monumental art: they are sculptures on a small scale. To look at the mid 5th century B.C.E. Etruscan earrings with female heads in the "severe style" of early classical art (1991.75.29.a-b), or the Hellenistic Greek medallion with the frontal head of Dionysus crowned by vine leaves (1991.75.71), is to see how major sculptural types could be adapted to personal use with no loss of majesty.

The most refined techniques of goldworking, such as granulation, filigree, repoussé, and the use of enamel and glass, passed from Egypt and the Near East to the Mycenaean Greeks in the second millennium B.C.E. The later Greeks and the Etruscans in central Italy also added Near Eastern ideas and techniques to their remarkably brilliant craftsmanship in gold, as seen in the orientalizing style of the Archaic period (700-480 B.C.E.) Although metalworking, especially in copper, bronze, and iron, was highly developed in all early societies north of the Mediterranean, fine jewelry work was often influenced by imported luxury goods, including decorative work on furnishings, as well as by jewelry itself. The Mycenaean Greek kings patronized Minoan Cretan craftsmen, whose masterworks from the royal graves at Mycenae still survive in the National Museum in Athens. Greek adaptations of Cretan-style objects also appear. The same rich mixture of styles, influences, and elaborate techniques occurs on Greek and Etruscan goldwork in Italy of the 8th to the 7th centuries B.C.E. The earliest Etruscan jewelry, as seen in the Regolini-Galassi tomb at Caere (modern Cerveteri), already demonstrates a bravura, highly ornamental style with imagery from the Near East.

During the 6th, 5th, and 4th centuries B.C.E., Greece and Etruria created a splendid array of gold jewelry, intricate in workmanship and classically refined in form. Whatever meaning these luxury ornaments had in life, their burial with the dead conveyed a funerary message. The wreaths and diadems, for instance of which the museum has a number of fine examples (1991.75.37, 1991.75.39, 1991.75.38, 1991.75.54, 1991.75.66.a-b, 1991.75.75), would have been worn in life at banquets, as victors' prizes in war or athletic competittions, and on religious or civic occasions, but their burial defined a different kind of triumph.

Many of the Greek pieces in the museum's collections come from Magna Graecia, the Greek city-states in south Italy and Sicily. These communities were often richer than the older cities of mainland Greece and Ionia. Our word "sybaritic" comes from Sybaris, one of the luxury-loving towns in Magna Graecia. The southern Italian cities were also devoted to mystic cults, such as the religious society of the philosopher-magician Pythagoras, or Orphism, based on the beliefs of the legendary musician Orpheus. Refuting the stark classical Greek view of death and human fate, these cults shared with the Eleusinian cult of Demeter and the northern cult of Dionysus a hope for personal immortality.

In considering the effect of such beliefs on jewelry, it is difficult to determine whether the pair of earrings with Nike figures were left with the dead woman simply as prized personal possessions (1991.75.74.1.a-b), while the medallion with the head of Dionysus may have referred to religious beliefs (1991.75.71), Certainly sphinxes, which appear on a fine Etruscan clasp (1991.75.22) and also on a bracelet (1991.75.9) in the collection, had a funerary meaning in the ancient world, since they were used as grave guardians. One late ring bezel shows Oedipus answering the Sphinx's riddle about the meaning of existence (1991.75.96). Images of the gods Athena, Aphrodite, and Dionysus imply a belief in the deities' power during life and imitations of power after death.

Another motif that goes back to early classical times in both Greece and Italy is the snake. Lavish snake bracelets such as the Roman Snake armlet (1991.75.92.1) were worn in pairs on the upper arms. Snakes were symbols of the underworld and part of apotropaic images such as the Gorgon Medusa (1972.5). Hermes, leader of spirits into the underworld, had a snake-headed herald's wand or kerykeion (caduceus), of which the museum has a fine bronze example (1969.7).

Underneath the shining splendor of the entire gold collection - works originally meant to be worn by men and women as a sign of wealth and power in life - lies a more fundamental meaning. Gold, a mysterious power, was a means for people to communicate with the gods who rule human life. Much of the nature of gold imagery in the collection is as ambiguous as the character of ancient religious cults themselves. The pieces of jewelry represent love, fertility, power, and also war, violence, and death. They are adorned with the monstrous Gorgon who can be a protective charm, the flowers of springtime, the grapes of Dionysus, and Athena's warlike helmet and shield.

The Etruscans left elaborate painted and sculpted tombs that testify to their vivid interest in the afterworld; they were also expert goldsmiths. The granulated detail on the best of the museum's Etruscan fibulae, or brooches, is so minute it demands magnification (1991.75.2, 1991.75.3, 1991.75.4, 1991.75.5). Yet these miracles of small-scale ornament were manufactured with quite simple means. Gold dust or small ingots were melted and refined in clay vessels over charcoal fires, which were supplied with oxygen by leather bellows or blowpipes. Cold metal was worked by copper hammers, chisels, and cutting tools. A common technique was to hammer gold into thin sheets, which were then raised from behind by repoussé modeling. The lost-wax casting method used for bronze weapons, vessels, and statues rarely occurred in goldwork, since less of the rare material was wasted when it was worked as sheet gold. Simple gold jewlery shapes could be enriched by granulation, in which a pattern of gold globules was fixed to a resin base that disappeared when heated, or by filigree, in which patterns were made with gold wire. Glass could also be combined with repoussé gold ornament, as in the very rare blue glass bracelet with lion-head finials (1991.75.21), the unusual ornament in the form of an aegis (1991.75.20), or the more common Hellenistic and Roman necklaces with pasta vitrea beads (1991.75.95).

The sources for gold were fairly limited in the Archaic age and the Classical period (480-323 B.C.E.). Alluvial gold deposits in Anatolia (the foundation for the myths of King Midas and the fabulously wealthy King Croesus) were important, as were deposits north of Greece in Macedonia, Thrace, and Scythia, where local rulers often employed Greek craftsmen. After Alexander the Great's conquests of Egypt and the Near East in the late 4th century B.C.E., raw gold became more readily available in the Mediterranean. It came from as far away as the Caucasus, India, and the highlands of East Africa. These rich resources of both gold and gemstones are apparent in the polychrome jewelry pieces of Hellenistic Greece and their successors in the Roman empire.

The skill of the ancient goldsmith has never been equaled. Although the techniques used are for the most part understood, the virtuosity and intricacy of manufacture have yet to be duplicated. The ancient goldsmith used the unaided eye, hammers, punches, and traces of various shapes, abrasives, burnishers, and open charcoal fire, molds and cores, engraving tools, scales, tongs, and ceramic crucibles. No files, snips, or drawplates for wire were used. The classical pieces in the museum's collection represent well the materials and techniques used by ancient jewelry makers.

Excerpt from

Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, with contributions from Anne R. Bromberg and John Dennis, Ancient Gold Jewelry at the Dallas Museum of Art, (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art in association with the University of Washington Press, 1996), 15-19.

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Jennifer Sheppard, McDermott Education Intern for Family and Access Teaching, DMA
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

Web Resources

Musei Vaticani
View plans of the Regolini-Galassi tomb at Caere.