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Dissecting Mesopotamian Jewelry

A female attendant found in the Great Death Pit at the Royal Tombs at Ur. Often mistaken for Queen Pu-abi, this attendant is one of 26 others found wearing such adornments. (Source)

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.

A relief depicting the destruction of Susa. Assyrian soldiers can be seen carrying away the loot, which included silver and gold jewelry. (Source)

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.

Bloodstone was worn by Babylonians for protection against their enemies and was also used in divination.

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

A close-up of a relief detailing Ashurbanipal, wearing hoop earrings and a royal headdress. Notice that he is wearing earrings, but the man next to him, who is wearing simple headbands, is not. Jewelry was definitely a recognizable and notable status symbol. (Source)

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)

Two of Queen Pu-abi’s gold rings. She was wearing ten rings when found. Her attendants also wore similar rings. (Source)

The jewelry of an attendant from the Royal Tombs of Ur. Notice the three rosettes at the top of her headdress with gold leaves at the bottom, large hoop earrings and various bead necklaces, all signature Sumerian designs. Carnelian, lapis lazuli and gold are dominant. (Source)

An illustration that clearly shows Sargon II wearing earrings, arm bands and bracelets. The woman behind him is  wearing the same. (Source)

Beaded headbands found at the Royal Tombs at Ur, the lower one was found in a male’s grave. (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.

“Queen Pu-abi’s beaded cape, belt, and jewelry. The circle on the lower left is her garter; on the lower right is her wrist cuff (bracelet).” (Source)

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.

A headband with detailed gold foil leaves. Sumerian goldsmiths used the lost-wax technique to draw the veins on each gold foil leaf. (Source)

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)

A Sumerian gold bead with a filigree design. (Source)

Hair ornaments with granulation and cloisonne techniques.(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)

An amulet like this one, found at the Royal Tombs at Ur, is an example of what was made using the cast cold technique. (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)

The economics

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.

A typical Mesopotamian combination was of lapis lazuli, gold and carnelian.(Source)

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.

Sources and Further Reading:

http://sumerianshakespeare.com

http://www.sculpt.com/technotes/COLDCAST.htm

http://www.allaboutgemstones.com/jewelry_history_mesopotamia.html

http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Sumerian_Jewelry

http://www.birthstones.org.uk/jewelry/ancient-mesopotamian-jewelry.htm

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewellery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Susa-destruction.jpg

http://www.enchanted.co.uk/materials.html

http://www.lsg.sch.ae/departments/history/Hili/Hilli_Website_2008/5.%20Wealth%20&%20Trade/Meso_v2_final.htm

http://www.lifescript.com/life/relationships/marriage/the_evolution_of_the_wedding_ring.aspx

http://voices.yahoo.com/the-history-jewelry-part-iv-mesopotamia-4073775.html?cat=69

http://books.google.com/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&q=earrings#v=snippet&q=earrings&f=false

http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Beginnings-Of-Jewelry&id=509212

http://www.alhakaya.net/product.php?id_product=100

http://www.transoxiana.org/0110/neva-jewelry.html

http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2010/08/christies-nimrud-earrings-back-in-iraq.html

http://art.thewalters.org/detail/77427/pair-of-basket-shaped-hair-ornaments

http://info.goldavenue.com/info_site/in_arts/in_civ/in_civ_sumer.html

http://www.ehow.com/about_5044654_bloodstone-used-magic.html

http://www.penn.museum/blog/125th-anniversary-object-of-the-day/sumerian-copper-goat-head-object-of-the-day-18/

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Artifacts, Assyrian, Jewelry, Nimrud, Sumerian

 

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How Queen Pu’abi and other royals got their servants for the afterlife at Ur

“During the burial of a king in the Royal Tombs of Ur, men and women were sacrificed to be the servants of royalty in the afterlife. They were arranged as shown, then they were given poison to drink.” (Source)

I originally wanted this to be one general post that covers tombs in Mesopotamia, but as I often find during my research, there is just too much to write about with due thoroughness in one post. So, in an attempt to give you my best for each of the two burial sites I wish to explore, this is post one of two that will explore the most interesting finds at two burial sites in Mesopotamia. It is pretty wild what those tombs have held for as much as 4,500 years…

When we think about extravagant burials and tombs, our brains are conditioned to immediately travel to Ancient Egypt, and mummy is the word.

But putting the mastery of preserving the dead for thousands of years aside, the Egyptians weren’t the only ones who buried their elite with extravagance, style and cast curses over those who disturbed such tombs. The Mesopotamians liked to go out with a bang too, and their most interesting and prominent tombs of that nature happen to be those of elite women.

Burial tombs have been unearthed throughout Mesopotamia, dating to different periods and containing all sorts of artifacts that provide glimpses into the ancient civilizations that rose and fell in the land between the two rivers, and the fragile skeletons of those who were part of such civilizations.

I’ve talked about the Royal Tombs of Ur, or rather touched on them, when I talked about the Golden Lyre of Ur Project, but I barely scratched the surface of what happened when an important person died in the ancient Sumerian city.

You remember I talked about British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley finding the Golden Lyre of Ur in Queen Pu’abi’s tomb? Well, he found a lot more than that during his excavations in Southern Iraq, between 1922 and 1934. What I did not tell you is that Woolley and his workmen found over 1,850 burials at the site, and 17 of those were so elaborate, Woolley dubbed them the Royal Tombs of Ur.

Most of the burials there date as far back as 2600 BC. They are tombs of the elite of society, those who played big roles at the temples and palaces of Ur. Still, of the 1,850 burials there, 137 were private tombs of those who were simply wealthy residents, able to afford a burial in the Royal Cemetery.

Queen Pu’abi’s headdress, made of gold, carnelian and lapis lazuli.

Queen Pu’abi’s tomb is the most prominent of the Royal Tombs, because of how well it was preserved over the centuries, thanks to looters leaving it be, a courtesy they did not extend to the other surrounding tombs.

We know the woman whose remains were found atop an elevated slab is Pu’abi, because of the cylinder seal found with her, which bears her name. There is much debate over who Pu’abi really is, whether she’s a queen or a priestess–no one knows for sure, but Pu’abi is believed to have been 40 years old at the time of her death, and that she was Akkadian. Her name in Akkadian is Pu’abi and translates to “Commander of the Father.” In Sumerian, she is known as Shubad.

Inside Queen Pu’abi’s tomb was not only her skeleton adorned with extravagant jewelry, including an elaborate headdress made of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, but also the skeletons of  26 attendants, also adorned with gold and lapis lazuli jewelry.

Woolley also found what he dubbed “The Great Death Pit,” which had 74 skeletons believed to be servants.

The site map of the Great Death Pit. You can click on the blue items and read further details about those items at the British Museum’s excellent website.

Woolley thought all the servants buried with their masters at Ur were willing victims, but later scholars have debated this notion and found ways to prove otherwise.

In early 2011, with the help of CT scanners and forensics, Penn Museum Archaeologist Aubrey Baadsgard and her colleagues did some sleuthing work to find out what really happened to the sacrificial victims found in the Royal Tombs of Ur.

Baadsgard and her team analyzed six skulls taken from different royal tombs and what she and her team found was quite chilling. Results, published in the journal Antiquity, revealed that these individuals died of blunt force trauma, blowing Woolley’s idea that these people simply drank poison and lied down to die in peace right out of the water. The results revealed that these people were dealt lethal blows to the back of the head by what appears to be a bronze battle axe in some cases, the like of which was unearthed at Ur.

And if that’s not a wow-inducing find by itself, then what Baardsgard and her team found next should do the trick. The bodies of these sacrificial victims had been embalmed for preservation with mercury sulphide or cinnabar, and further treated by heat.

Baadsgard’s team interprets this find of body preservation as an indication of an even more elaborate ritual for the burial of royals at Ur than originally thought. The need to preserve these bodies, the Penn Museum team concluded, was to cater to schedule of elaborate pre-burial ceremonies and rituals that could’ve taken days to complete, causing untreated corpses to decompose. You can read in more detail about Baadsgard’s amazing findings here.

And it seems that that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how Queen Pu’abi and the other individuals who were laid to rest in the Royal Tombs of Ur got their servants to serve them in the afterlife.

Stay tuned for another set of tombs that are sure to make you shiver with excitement very soon!

(There has been a correction made to this article regarding the number of attendants found in Queen Pu’abi’s tomb. Please note that 26 attendants were found with her and not 74 as I originally wrote. Thank you, Jerald Starr.)

Sources:

http://archaeology.about.com/od/mesopotamiaarchaeology/ss/royal_cemetery_at_ur.htm

http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2011/04/29/sleuthing-around-the-great-deeath-pit/

http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/tombs/home_set.html

http://sumerianshakespeare.com/71412.html

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Sumerian, Tombs

 

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