There is something about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry that sets it apart from any other in antiquity. That something is more than just a distinct style or taste. Mesopotamian jewelry was a large artery in the anatomy of each civilization that rose in the land between the two rivers, and its story is one worth reading.
Jewelry wasn’t a new concept when Sumerians got their innovating hands on it around 2750 BC, but their innovations made their jewelry, produced from that point to the Assyrian period, around 1200 BC, seem like it was an entirely new invention.
In fact, scholars and jewelry makers today look to Sumerian work as the progenitor of modern jewelry.
“Sumerian jewellery fulfilled practically all the functions which were to occur during the course of history. In fact, there were more different types of jewellery than there are today.” – Guido Gregorietti, jewelry historian (Source)
Of course, jewelry served as a status symbol in Mesopotamia as it always has everywhere else, but it also played a significant role in how the Mesopotamian civilization functioned. Let’s begin the journey to understand ancient Mesopotamian jewelry.
What it was for
It goes without saying that jewelry served as a status symbol for noblemen and noblewomen, and royals, in Mesopotamia. Royals were buried with theirs, like Queen Pu-abi at the royal cemetery at Ur.
The lavish royal tombs of Ur, along with those at Nimrud, are considered the most significant finds in the study of ancient Mesopotamian jewelry, because they held a lot of it and have helped explain the types and their uses. The three tombs at Nimrud alone held some 1500 pieces of jewelry, weighing a total of 100 lbs. At Ur, some 17 tombs were excavated, and they were simply loaded with jewelry.
Now, royals weren’t the only ones acquiring jewelry in ancient Mesopotamia. For example, we know of a jewelry-loving high priestess through her own letter of complaint to a jeweler, who she had paid in advance for a necklace she never received.(Source)
Jewelry was also a fail-safe wedding gift, as well as a commodity used in dowries and inheritances of the upper classes.
It was used as a tool in diplomacy, but was also the subject of war under the heading of wealth. Some of the jewelry unearthed in Mesopotamia is loot from military campaigns, mostly during the Assyrian period.
The most significant incident of jewelry looting was documented by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who wrote of the state in which he left the Elamite city of Susa, including what booty he took home:
Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt. (Source)
Jewelry was also offered to the gods at temples, and the practice of being buried with jewelry was a person’s attempt to go to the afterlife bearing gifts to the gods.
Mesopotamians adorned their statues and idols with jewelry to further clarify it as a spiritual and/or magical tool.
Mesopotamians pioneered astrology and astronomy, and they worshiped the planets, which they believed controlled their fates as individuals, as well as groups. They paired each planet with its own unique gemstone, therefore inspiring the idea of birthstone jewelry.(Source)
Wedding bands, as we know them today, in precious metal form, also got their start in Mesopotamia. They were only worn by women, and they communicated what is considered to be, well, a little less romantic message than ours, that tells of a woman’s status as someone’s property.
The specifics of who wore what
Mesopotamian men wore earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, pectoral ornaments and headbands, while women wore the same and more, including headdresses with foliage and flowers made from sheet gold, large crescent shaped earrings, chokers, large necklaces, belts, dress pins and rings on their fingers.(Source)
From Akkadian times of the early third millennium BC, men wore bead necklaces and bracelets. In the first millennium BC, Assyrian men and women wore earrings, bracelets, and amulets. Earrings, for example, were mostly designed into hoops, crescents, grape clusters, cones, and animal and human heads.(Source)
“Sumerian work is flavoured with amazing sophistication … delicacy of touch, fluency of line, a general elegance of conception,” wrote jewelry expert Graham Hughes. “All suggest that the goldsmiths’ craft emerged almost fully fledged in early Mesopotamia.” (Source)
What it was
The materials used in Mesopotamian jewelry were the basic copper, gold, silver, and electrum, along with the not-so-basic gemstones like agate, carnelian, chalcedony, crystal, jasper, lapis lazuli (which was valued higher than any other material, even gold), onyx and sardonyx. Also used were shells and pearls.
These materials were used to make jewelry designs featuring stars, rosettes, leaves, grapes, cones, spirals and ribbons. Cylinder seals were also used, but were made by seal makers, separate from jewelers.
How it was made
Modern jewelry experts have dubbed Sumeria the cradle of the goldsmith’s art.
These craftsmen made most gold and silver items by cutting the precious metals into thin sheets, which they shaped with hammers and other tools.(Source) They also made gold chains with the basic loop-in-loop method, which is a testament to the firm grip Sumerian goldsmiths had on working with gold wire. They also engraved, and used techniques like cloisonne, filigree, and granulation.(Source)
Also, to make solid and hollow ornaments they used the cast cold technique. To trace details like veins on gold foil leaves, and grooves on beads, the lost-wax technique was employed.(Source)
No actual jewelry shops have been unearthed in Mesopotamia, but the tools of jeweler Ilsu-Ibnisu, one of two Sumerian jewelers whose names we know from the city of Larsa, put into perspective what Sumerian jewelry makers used. His tools were found inside a jar, and included a small anvil, and bronze tweezers.(Source)
It is important to understand that although the Mesopotamian civilization was beyond rich in food production, thanks to its location on the Fertile Crescent, it was still a land of few resources. Metals and stones to make precious jewelry were especially scarce, necessitating what eventually shaped up to be an entire economy, based on the import of raw precious materials and the export of finished jewelry pieces. This would help Mesopotamians keep up with the growing exotic tastes of the upper crust of society.
Early Sumerian sources tell us that gold and silver were imported from Anatolia and northern Iran, while the highly-prized lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan (Source). Carnelian came all the way from India.(Source)
Now, because most jewelry craftsmen were of the lower classes in ancient Mesopotamia, and made very little money, they did not have the means to obtain the materials they needed from as far as 1,500 miles away. Such craftsmen belonged to government-controlled guilds that acted as liaisons between them and their local royal palace.
It is clear that after the rapid growth and development of cities like Ur of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and the Assyrian Assur and Nineveh, the wealth of aristocrats there and their demand for luxury goods increased, turning the business of jewelry into an entire trade network, a commercial enterprise that required the teaming up of the lower classes with the greatest powers in the land-the government.
Mark Schwartz, an expert featured on an Ancient Warfare Magazine podcast, “The Assyrians at War,” gives an example of how trade worked. He points to the old Assyrians living under the merchant system obtaining gold from Anatolia through the export of textiles (scrub to the 11:25 point in the podcast to hear this).
The Sumerians’ Legacy
Although when we talk about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry we are referring to jewelry produced by Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians alike, it was really the achievements of the Sumerians in jewelry making that we marvel at the most. It was they who who wrote the opening chapter for jewelry making, not only for other Mesopotamian civilizations, but also the ancient and modern worlds.
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