Metal Antiquities: Jewelry & Coins

Neanderthals created the earliest known jewelry. Perforated beads made from small sea shells have been found dating to 115,000 years ago along the southeast coast of Spain.

Skipping ahead, the first signs of established jewelry making in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was around 3,000–5,000 years ago. The Egyptians preferred the luxury, rarity, and workability of gold over other metals. Egyptian jewelry symbolized political and religious power, and was worn by them in death. In the Mesopotamian Royal Cemetery of Ur (2900–2300 BC), tombs contain artifacts in gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. In Assyria, men and women both wore extensive amounts of jewelry, including amulets, ankle bracelets, heavy multi-strand necklaces, and cylinder seals.

The Greeks started using gold and gems in jewelry in 1600 BC, although beads shaped as shells and animals were produced widely in earlier times. Around 1500 BC, the main techniques of working gold in Greece included casting, twisting bars, and making wire. Many of these sophisticated techniques were lost at the end of the Bronze Age.

The most common artifact of early Rome was the brooch, which was used to secure clothing together. Although they used gold, they sometimes used bronze or bone. As early as 2,000 years ago, they imported Sri Lankan sapphires and Indian diamonds and used emeralds and amber in their jewelry. The early Italians worked in crude gold and created clasps, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.

Like the Greeks, often the purpose of Roman jewelry was to ward off the “Evil Eye” given by other people. Although women wore a vast array of jewelry, men often only wore a finger ring. Although they were expected to wear at least one ring, some Roman men wore a ring on every finger, while others wore none. Roman men and women wore rings with an engraved gem on it that was used with wax to seal documents, a practice that continued into medieval times when kings and noblemen used the same method.

Metals, as a currency, evolved in the form of ingots, rings, spits and various cast shapes, but these objects were not ideal. They were later made more practical by applying specific standards of weight and purity to them.

The increasingly complex trading activities between Lydia in Asia Minor (Turkey), with Greek Ionia and her other trading partners, is thought to have precipitated the introduction of coinage around 650 BC. Through coinage, trade was often conducted on a large scale over vast distances.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded about 430 BC: “So far as we have any knowledge they (the Lydians) were the first nation to introduce the use of gold and silver coins.”

Antiquities in the Coppola Collection.