Jewelry: Never Just Jewelry

The fifty-six pre-Roman amber objects in this catalogue can be considered collectively as jewelry. However, in the ancient world, as now, jewelry was never just jewelry. Today, throughout the world, jewelers, artisans, and merchants make or sell religious symbols, good-luck charms, evil eyes, birthstones, tiaras, mourning pins, wedding rings, and wristwatches. Jewelry can signal allegiance to another person, provide guidance, serve a talismanic function, ward away danger, or link the wearer to a system of orientation—as does a watch set to Greenwich Mean Time—or to ritual observances. Birthstones and zodiacal images can connect wearers to their planets and astrological signs. Certain items of jewelry serve as official insignia: for example, the crown jewels of a sovereign or the ring of the Pontifex Maximus. A cross or other religious symbol can demonstrate faith or an aspect of belief. Not only goldsmiths make jewelry; so also do healers and other practitioners with varying levels of skill. In the West today, most jewelry is made for the living; in other parts of the world, objects of adornment may be particular to the rituals of death and intended as permanent accompaniments for the deceased’s remains. Much jewelry, especially if figured, belongs to a phenomenology of images, and it functions in ritual ways. It is part of a social flow of information and can establish, modify, and comment on major social categories, such as age, sex, and status, since it has value, carries meaning, and suggests communication within groups, regions, and often larger geographical areas.

Underlying my discussion of ancient carved amber is the belief that jewelry (adornment and body ornamentation) is value-laden and that its form and material qualities (the ancient use of rare and exotic materials reflects labor, skill, and knowledge-intensive production) are powerful indicators of social identity. Permanent ornaments can endure beyond one human life and can connect their wearers to ancestors, thus playing a crucial role in social continuity—especially when we consider that such objects are imbued with an optical authority that words and actions often lack, or carry messages too dangerous or controversial to put into words. In life, in funeral rituals, and in the grave, the decoration of the body with amber jewelry and other body ornaments would have had a social function, solidifying a group’s belief systems and reiterating ideas about the afterworld. Perhaps more than any other aspect of the archaeological record, body ornamentation is a point of access into the social world of the past. Ethnographers see body ornamentation as affirming the social construct and structure and, when worn by the political elite, as guaranteeing group beliefs. Interpretations of the meanings of body ornamentation imagery must consider how “artistic” languages work to create expressive effects that are dependent upon the setting.

Jewelry is made to be worn; it is often bestowed or given as a gift at significant threshold dates; and it is regularly imbued with or accrues sentimental or status value because of the giver or a previous wearer or donor. In antiquity, jewelry also was given to the gods (figure 2). Dedications might be made at the transition to womanhood, following a successful birth, or in thanksgiving. Jewelry of gold, amber, ivory, or other precious materials might be placed on cult statues to form part of the statue’s kosmos, or embellishment. In notable cases, such embellishment was later renewed and the old material buried as deposits in sanctuaries.5

Ring dedicated to Hera, Greek, ca. 575 B.C. Gilded silver, Diam. (outer): 2.2 cm (78 in.), Diam. (inner): 1.8 cm (1116 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AM.264.
Figure 2
Ring dedicated to Hera, Greek, ca. 575 B.C. Gilded silver, Diam. (outer): 2.2 cm (78 in.), Diam. (inner): 1.8 cm (1116 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AM.264.

Jewelry is one of the most powerful and pervasive forms in which humans construct and represent beliefs, values, and social identity. When made by artists or artisans of the highest skill, lifelike images can carry magical and dynamic religious properties and can even be highly charged ritual objects in their own right. Tiny carved amber images buried with people considered to be members of religious-political elites may well have played such a role.

The nature and role of amber-workers—jewelers, pharmacists, priests, “wise women,” and magicians—are critical to reading body ornaments. Not only the materials and subjects, but also the technology of jewelry-making, were integral to its effect. If the materials were precious and the making mythic or magical, the results were appropriate for the elite, including the gods. The concept of “maker” also includes supernatural entities, such as magician-gods and other mythic artisans. In the Greek-speaking world, the Iliad describes Hephaistos at work in his marine grotto, making arms, armor, and jewelry: elegant brooches, pins, bracelets, and necklaces. The god crafted Harmonia’s necklace and Pandora’s crown. Daidalos put his hand to all sorts of creations and gave his name to one of the most famous of all Greek objects of adornment: Odysseus’s brooch.6

This said, there is a problem with the language. The modern word jewelry is, in the end, limiting and fails to encompass the full significance of the carved ambers. The terms ornament and body ornamentation, adornment and object of adornment, too, are problematic. One of the more accurate terms, amulet (figure 3), is also loaded, as it is situated on a much-discussed crossroads among magic, medicine, ritual, and religion. Amulet is a modern word, derived from the Latin amuletum, used to describe a powerful or protective personal object worn or carried on the person. “Because of its shape, the material from which it is made, or even just its color,” an amulet “is believed to endow its wearer by magical means with certain powers and capabilities.”7

Amber necklaces and gold ornaments from the young girl’s Tomb 102, Braida di Serra di Vaglio, Italy, ca. 500 B.C. The sphinx pendant, the largest amber pendant, has H: 4.6 cm (134 in.), L: 8.3 cm (314 in.), W: 1.5 cm (58 in.). Approximate total length of strings of amber: 240 cm (9412 in.). Potenza, Museo Archeologico Nazionale “Dinu Adamesteanu.”
Figure 3
Amber necklaces and gold ornaments from the young girl’s Tomb 102, Braida di Serra di Vaglio, Italy, ca. 500 B.C. The sphinx pendant, the largest amber pendant, has H: 4.6 cm (134 in.), L: 8.3 cm (314 in.), W: 1.5 cm (58 in.). Approximate total length of strings of amber: 240 cm (9412 in.). Potenza, Museo Archeologico Nazionale “Dinu Adamesteanu.” By permission of il Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali—Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici della Basilicata—Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Basilicata / IKONA.


  1. Paraphrased from D. Williams and J. Ogden, Greek Gold: Jewelry of the Classical World (London, 1994), pp. 31–32.
  2. Many figured ambers might have been brought to an ancient Greek-speaking viewer’s mind by the words daidalon, kosmos, and agalma, specifically the daidalon worn by Odysseus: a gold brooch animated with the image of a hound holding a dappled fawn in its forepaws, the fawn struggling to flee (Odyssey 19.225–31). Sarah Morris first brought this example to my attention. See S. P. Morris, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton, 1992), esp. pp. 27–29. See also , pp. 20–21; and F. Frontisi-Ducroux, Dédale: Mythologie de l’artisan en Grèce ancienne (Paris, 2000).

    What M. J. Bennett (, pp. 78–80) writes about Greek Geometric plate fibulae might be applicable to other contemporary and later precious figured ornaments in the Greek-speaking world. Objects with complex imagery might reflect “the ordering of the world (kosmos).… Considering that kosmos meant ‘the universe,’ ‘order,’ ‘good behavior,’ as well as ‘a piece of jewelry,’ the fibula was not a mere fashion accessory, but rather a sophisticated ontological statement.” G. F. Pinney, Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece (Chicago, 2002), p. 53, with reference to Hesiod’s Theogony 581–84, writes: “The vocabulary of kosmos makes ample use of words for splendor and light: lampein, phaeinos, aglaos, sigaloeis.” The point is glamour in the form of radiance, light emanating from shimmering cloth and gleaming metals.

    Agalma occupied distinct but related semantic areas in Greek, as , p. 10, describes: “It could designate any pleasing ornament, or a pleasing ornament dedicated to the gods. In the fifth century, Herodotus used agalma to refer specifically to statues, the agalmata par excellence displayed in the sanctuaries of his time.” M. C. Stieber, The Poetics of Appearance in the Attic Korai (Austin, TX, 2004), is illuminating as she probes agalma for the sculptures and their accoutrements in her discussion of the kore as an agalma for the goddess and the korai as agalmata in and of themselves. She reminds us that the term is used of real women in literature (Helen of Troy and Iphigenia in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon 7.41 and 208, respectively).

  3. , p. 6. The literature on amulets, amuletic practice, magic, and ritual practice in the ancient world is vast. The term magic is used here in its broadest and most positive sense. Although M. Dickie and others argue that magic did not exist as a separate category of thought in Greece before the fifth century B.C., practices later subsumed under the term did, especially the use of amulets. The use of amulets implies a continuing relationship between the object and the wearer, continuing enactment, and the role of at least one kind of practitioner. , p. 130, concludes that the existence and wide use of amulets in Rome by the Late Republic “leads us back into a hidden world of experts in the rituals of the manufacture and application of amulets, not to speak of those who sold them.” Pliny uses three words to describe amber items used in medicine, protection, and healing: amuletum, monile (for a necklace), and alligatum, when citing Callistratus. Greek terms for amulet include periamma and periapta. Following , n. 5, I use amulet to encompass the modern English talisman and also phylaktērion. The Greek recipes in the Papyri Graecae Magicae use the latter term.

    In early Greece, as elsewhere earlier in the Mediterranean world, an amulet was applied in conjunction with an incantation, as Kotansky (ibid.) describes. Incantations required the participation of skilled practitioners and receptive participants. Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, lists amulets and incantations as among the techniques used to heal the sick, a tradition that continued at least into the Late Antique period. Galen, for example, sanctions the use of incantations by doctors (, p. 25, and passim).

    Other works invaluable for framing this discussion of amulets and amber are Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, vol. 3, s.v. “magic rituals”; R. Gordon, “Innovation and Authority in Graeco-Egyptian Magic,” in Kykeon: Studies in Honour of H. S. Versnel, ed. H. F. J. Horstmannshoff et al. (Leiden, Boston, and Cologne, 2002), pp. 69–112; S. Marchesini, “Magie in Etrurien in orientalisierender Zeit,” in , pp. 305–13; W. Rollig, “Aspekte zum Thema ‘Mythologie und Religion,’” in , pp. 302–4; Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (Oxford and New York, 1998), s.v. “magic” (H. S. Versnel), p. 441; P. Schäfer and H. G. Kippenberg, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium (Princeton, 1997); ; , pp. 104–19; ; ; ; ; ; and esp. ; , pp. 218–42; H. Philipp, Mira et magica: Gemmen im Ägyptischen Museum der Staatlichen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin-Charlottenburg (Mainz, 1986); ; and S. Seligman, Die magischen Heil- und Schutzmittel aus der unbelebten Natur mit besonderer Berücksichtung der Mittel gegen den bösen Blick: Ein Geschichte des Amulettwesens (Stuttgart, 1927). In Egypt, an amulet could at the very least, as , p. 6, summarizes,

    afford some kind of magical protection, a concept confirmed by the fact that three of the four Egyptian words translate as “amulet,” namely mkt (meket), nht (nehet) and s3 (sa) come primarily from verbs meaning “to guard” or “to protect.” The fourth, wd3 (wedja), has the same sound as the word meaning “well-being.” For the ancient Egyptian, amulets and jewelry [that] incorporate amuletic forms were an essential adornment, especially as part of the funerary equipment for the dead, but also in the costume of the living. Moreover, many of the amulets and pieces of amuletic jewelry worn in life for their magical properties could be taken to the tomb for use in the life after death. Funerary amulets, however, and prescribed funerary jewelry which was purely amuletic in function, were made expressly for setting on the wrapped mummy on the day of the burial to provide aid and protection on the fraught journey to the Other world and ease in the Afterlife.

    In the ancient Near East, the great variety of human problems handled by recourse to amulets is already well documented in the Early Dynastic period. See B. L. Goff, Symbols of Prehistoric Mesopotamia (New Haven and London, 1963), esp. chap. 9, “The Role of Amulets in Mesopotamian Ritual Texts,” pp. 162–211. The role of magic as described in Assyro-Babylonian elite literature is relevant: magic was prescribed and overtly practiced for the benefit of king, court, and important individuals; it was not marginal and clandestine; and only noxious witchcraft was forbidden and prosecuted. See E. Reiner, Astral Magic in Babylonia (Chicago, 1995).

    Keeping in mind the cultural variants of death and burial rituals in the places and periods under consideration here, there may have been a considerable lag between death and the readying of the corpse, including cremation, excarnation, or other preparations before burial rituals. The production of sumptuary and ritualistic objects suggests the existence of specialists (religious-ceremonial or political-ceremonial) who themselves may have used insignia associated with their positions.


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