Gold Jewelry Of The Classical World

From the Greek Mainland: The Ubiquitous Herakles Knot

The Herakles knot, shown here at the center of a gold diadem, had been around for centuries but became quite popular in the fourth century B.C. This one was made between 300 and 280 B.C. on the Greek island of Melos, just off the Greek mainland. The Herakles knot represented transitions such as marriage – it tied a bride’s garment and was untied by the groom. The undoing of knots was connected also with the easing of childbirth.

Diadems were among the most lavish jewelry made by the Greeks, who had a penchant for head ornaments. This piece also features common Greek goldworking techniques such as filigree and spiral beading (gold wire worked to look like threads on a screw). Rosettes, as common as Herakles knots on Greek jewelry, decorate the knot and the ribbons. The piece features a garnet in the middle, which is unusual because the Greeks rarely used precious stones. Enameling, on the other hand, was quite common and is seen here on some rosettes and on the scales at the borders of the knot.

From the Greek Mainland: Armlets With a Triton and Tritoness

Greek mythology was a popular topic for artisans. These tritons, representing the half human/half fish offspring of Poseidon, the god of the sea, were made in northern Greece about 200 B.C. Greek jewelers used tritons frequently, probably because the tails made terrific twining vehicles (for the same reason, snakes are commonly seen in Greek jewelry). The triton and the tritoness carry erotes, the “love babies” created by Eros, the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Because jewelry often was given as a gift of love – just as it is now – this goddess, her son and his “groupies” appear quite frequently.

Each armlet has hooks at the top so it could be attached to the top of a woman’s gown. Greeks considered armlets the grandest bracelets. Notice the gold chasing in the form of scales on the central part of each arm band. The hollow bodies of the triton and tritoness are worked from sheet gold.

Greek gold jewelry from the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. provides a mirror into the lives of the ancient people we call “Greek.” These people lived on what is now the Greek mainland, in Athens and in other city/states of the time. Greeks also migrated to four other areas during a diaspora that took place around 400 B.C., after a devastating period of wartime, mainly for Athenians.

Athens’ famous craftsmen, who had just produced a glorious array of art that included sculpture, pottery and building projects such as the Parthenon, scattered literally to the four winds. They went east to Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), north toward the Black Sea (principally around the Crimea), west to the Greek colonies in southern Italy and its islands, and south to Cyprus and other locations in the eastern Mediterranean.

The gold jewelry the jewelers among these craftsmen produced in each place was the subject of a recent exhibit, “Greek Gold: Jewelry of the Classical World,” that appeared in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibit was at The British Museum in London earlier and is now at The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg through August.

The pieces, which range from 18k to almost pure gold, are on loan from all three museums. The principal funding was supplied by Cartier, with additional support from Stavros S. Niarchos and the World Gold Council.

Most of the information here is culled from that exhibit and its accompanying catalog, Greek Gold, Jewelry of the Classical World (Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1994) by Dyfri Williams and Jack Ogden. Williams is keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at The British Museum. Stories from Greek mythology are taken from Greek Mythology (Intercarta, Athens, 1989) by Sophia Kokkinou. All photos are courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The British Museum.

From the Crimea: Pendant Disc of Athena

This pendant disk was made around 400-350 B.C. in Kul Oba in the Crimea. It depicts the head of the statue of Athena that legendary sculptor Pheidias made for the Parthenon. Athena was one of the most revered of the Greek goddesses. She protected the Greeks during the Trojan War, according to Homer, and was the goddess of wisdom, home and hearth, which made her beloved of women and a common motif in their jewelry. Athens was named for her and the Parthenon was built for her.

Notice the griffins, Pegasus figures and deer on the elaborate helmet here – all were common animal figures in Greek jewelry. The piece also features traces of blue and green enamel, rosettes, wire spirals and seeds, which also were popular decorations. The pendant would have been worn by a woman low on her upper torso, between her breasts.

Athena was well-known in the Crimea, possibly because as the patron of famous heros, she helped to oversee the building of the ship Argo, which carried Jason and the Argonauts across the Black Sea to capture the Golden Fleece in the famous Greek tale. The tale may have been inspired by the fact that gold clings to greasy wool, so sheep fleece was often used to wash gold from other materials.

From the Eastern Mediterranean: Herakles Knot With Eros

This Herakles knot with Eros in the middle, made in Syria about 300-250 B.C., clearly shows that Greek marriage symbols had made it to the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s formed from hollow tubes bordered by beaded wire and decorated with spiral beaded wire. Granulation is featured in the center of each spiral.

From Italy: Boat-Shaped Earrings with Gorgons

Perhaps the woman who owned these earrings, made in Taranto, one of the Greek settlements in Italy, wanted to fend off unwanted suitors. The gorgons on the earrings could have been modeled after the mythical gorgon Medusa, who had snakes for hair and eyes so awful that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. The earrings feature the very popular “boat” style, with large, clustered grains of gold attached to them. The clusters imitate late-Etruscan earrings. Because the Etruscans were from Italy, the influence is understandable. The earrings also feature spiral beaded filigree and were made about 340-320 B.C.

Asia Minor: An Oak Wreath With a Bee, Two Cicadas and Acorns

This glorious wreath, made on the Dardanelles in Asia Minor around 350-300 B.C., consists of gold sheets so thin the leaves actually flutter when you walk by. Men and women alike wore wreaths, mostly in processionals. The great orator and statesman Demosthenes wrote about a wreath made for him by a jeweler named Pammenes, who had a goldsmith’s shop in the Greek agora at the base of the Acropolis. (Pammenes is one of the lucky few “named” ancient Greek jewelers – most were anonymous, and many were slaves.)

Motifs from the natural world were quite common in Greek jewelry, often used as tributes to the gods. Oak was sacred to Zeus, for example. The Greeks also were quite fond of bugs, birds and other flying creatures, such as cicadas.

From the Crimea: Earrings of the Goddess Artemis

These pendant earrings, made in the Crimea around 325-300 B.C., feature Artemis, the goddess of hunting and nature. Artemis rides sidesaddle on her sacred stag and has tiny Herakles knots in her hair. She and the stag are constructed of sheet metal from several components. For example, her head and feet were attached separately, as were the stag’s legs, ears, antlers and tail. Artemis holds a torch made of rods of plain gold wire bound with wires. The torch suggests she’s helping Demeter look for Persephone, a task that Zeus gave her, according to ancient myth.

From Asia Minor: Gold Tie-Necklet Featuring Pomegranates

This tie necklet, made in Asia Minor near Kyme around 330-300 B.C., features beads and pomegranate-like terminals. Ever the romantics, the Greeks thought of pomegranates as symbols of fertility because of their numerous fleshy seeds. Not surprisingly, they were sacred to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. The terminals are decorated with filigree and spiral beaded wire.

From the Crimea: Appliqués of Demeter and Persephone

These appliqués (Demeter is depicted at left, her daughter Persephone at right) were found on the clothing of a woman in a tomb from the Crimea and were made around 330-300 B.C.

Demeter, goddess of agriculture, made her mark by preventing the return of spring and summer after the Greek devil Hades abducted Persephone and held her in the underworld. When people began to die of starvation because they couldn’t grow food without spring and summer, Hades and Zeus, the king of gods, relented and allowed Persephone to go back to earth for half the year. That was enough to persuade Demeter to allow spring and summer to return.

Notice that Demeter holds a flaming torch to light her path as she searches for her daughter and that her head is bent slightly to the right, perhaps in mourning. These appliqués were made from brittle pale gold that was worked with a die or punch from the back. The contours of the faces and the eyes are slightly incised.