Ancient Civilizations' Uses for Jewelry

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    Wealth and Social Status

    • To the ancients, jewelry advertised the wealth and social rank of those who possessed it. Societies adorned their living and their dead in precious metals and stones. They did this to signify the social power or religious dominance of the community. The Egyptians commonly wore beads as a visible symbol of wealth. Even the poorest Egyptian citizen might own clay beads, while wealthier men wore beads made of pearl. The classical Greeks presented gold crowns fashioned into a band of laurel leaves to honor their heroes and esteemed scholars.

    Personal Identification

    • Signet rings held an important function in several ancient societies including ancient Mesopotamia and Rome. Engraved with an inscription, the rings served as the personal signature of its bearer. When pressed into warm wax signet rings sealed personal and official documents. Some cultures believed that this seal magically connected the contents of a contract to the author. Because the function of the signet was crucial to ancient societies, tradesmen often put aside the best gems for skilled artisans who faced the challenge of carving letters or figures backward into the stone.

    Religious Ceremonies

    • The ancients donned their jewelry with elaborate costumes during religious ceremonies in order to resemble heroes or deities. Ancient Greeks priests and priestesses paraded in gold headdresses to appear as the gods Eros and Nike. Worshippers offered precious metals and gems as gifts during religious rites, cult activities, and festivals in hope of receiving supernatural favor. Craftsmen fashioned jewelry in the images of religious figures or folk heroes from legends and popular culture. The Greeks popularized the stone-carved cameo, which highlighted a portrait of a favored leader or god.

    Magic

    • Some ancient people believed that precious stones and metals had mystical powers. The color of a gem often determined its ability. For example, green gems were thought to encourage fertility and healthy crops. Red jewels satiated a god's need for blood, which was a belief that led the Egyptians to bury their mummies with a red necklace placed over the neck. Images carved into gems, known as glyptic art, portrayed sacred animals or objects meant as protection from evil spirits. The Egyptians often buried priceless jewelry with their deceased loved ones in order to protect them in the afterlife.

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