Jewelry of Mesopotamia

Considered to be one of the cradles of civilization, the Mesopotamian, or "Sumerian" culture flourished from the pre-pottery Neolithic (Hassuan) period of around 8,000 BCE, through the Late Bronze Age of around 1,200 BCE.


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Mesopotamian civilization relied on the life-giving rainfall of the region's "Fertile Crescent," and by the Ubaid period, around 5,000 BCE, village settlements began to spring up near the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in present-day southern Iraq.


Perhaps one of the greatest surviving treasure-troves of ancient jewelry and artifacts is the so-called “gold of Nimrud”, or Nimroud, which was found in the tombs and throne-room of the Assyian king Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. The Nimrud complex was situated to the south of the ancient Assyria capital of Nineveh (modern-day Moslem Iraq), along the Tigris river.

Although the ruins at Nimrud was discovered in 1848 by a British archeologist named by Sir Austen Henry Layard, the treasures that were hidden beneath the ruins lay undisturbed until 1988, when an Iraqi archeologist named Muzahim Mahmud noticed that floor tiles within the ruins had been relaid at some point in the distant past.


In one tomb alone, there were over 459 items of gold and silver jewelry weighing around 22.5 kilograms! These included a single gold crown and diadem, 14 amulets, 79 earrings, 90 necklaces, 30 rings, and 15 gold or rock-crystal vessels. The Nimrud treasures were on display in the Assyrian galleries of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad until 2003, when the museum was looted during the Iraqi invasion. Some of the treasures were spirited off to wealthy collectors in Europe, but many of the items were hidden for safe keeping, and are now on display as part of the touring “Gold of Nimrud” exhibit.

Mesopotamian jewelry was constructed from bronze, gold, silver and the natural alloy known as electrum, which was imported from Lydia (Anatolia). Exotic gemstones such as agate, chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, onyx, lapis lazuli, and sardonyx were not locally produced, and had to be imported from such far-away lands as Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia. Jewelry production extended from the cities of Akkad and Assur in Assyria, to the Babylonian cities of Nineyeh, Sumer, and Ur.


Raw materials such as ivory, lapis lazuli and exotic hardwoods, as well as carved carnelian beads were also purchased from Harappan merchants who sailed over 1500 miles from the Indus valley.

Jewelry in Mesopotamia was worn liberally by both women and men, and popular items included multi-strand necklaces of carnelian and lapis, gold earrings, hair ribbons made from thin gold leaf, ankle bracelets, silver hair rings, gold medallion pendants with elaborate filigree, signet rings, cylinder seals, and amulets.


Popular jewelry design motifs in Mesopotamian included leaves, twigs and bunches of grapes, or cone and spiral shaped objects and pendants. Jewelry craftsmen employed a wide variety of metalworking techniques such as cloisonné enameling, engraving, granulation (later history), filigree and repousse. Jewelry was made for human use, as well as for adorning statues and idols.

The Babylonian cylinder seal was a type of signet stone that was one to three inches long, and carved with an elaborate intaglio design that depicted both mythical scenes, and a unique personal signature. Text was in cuneiform which was the written language of the Sumerian, Akkadian and Elamite cultures. These cylinder seals were typically made from chalcedony, jasper serpentine or soapstone. These cylinders were used to mark/seal shipments that were destined for some distant land along the ancient Silk Road.

The use of signet or personal seal-stones may have been responsible for creating the art of gem-carving known as “glyptic art”. Glyptic carvings were used on ring-stones which were worn by men, women and children. The ancient lapidary would use emery fragments or flint to carve softer stones, and rotary tools driven by a bow were used on harder materials.

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