Ancient Adornments: The Origins of Jewelry

The Ties that Bind 

I never leave for work without stopping at my jewelry chest – a burnished burlwood box that held my grandmother’s jewelry decades before it held my own. Inevitably, I select the pieces I will wear based on who and what will make up my day. I always wear my wedding set, and when I want extra oomph I don vivid emerald cabochons. If I know I am meeting with an important client, my Cartier watch serves as my professional armor.

Lately, I am especially drawn to the heirloom pieces in my box. My grandmother’s ruby ring, a treasured locket with my father’s hair inside. We had a sudden death in my family last week, and the loss has been on my mind. Even though I am over 1000 miles away from my kin, I find solace in the velvety patina of the metal, knowing that it was worn by my loved ones long before it ever touched my skin.

I don’t normally think about the whys of what I wear so intensely. I would wager that most of you don’t either. But these are the reasons we have always worn jewelry. Jewelry expresses things that are sometimes harder to say quickly or appropriately with words. Success, belonging, religious affiliation, mourning – all can be ascertained instantly through the wave of a bejeweled hand or wrist. For millennia, we as humans have made these choices. While the styles and pieces have changed greatly, their reasons for being have remained largely the same. Jewelry is and always has been a form of human expression.

Intricate ancient adornments

The Core of Self-Expression

Anthropologists have long concurred that a key marker of the essence of becoming human is self-expression. Jewelry predates even cave paintings in the archaeological body of evidence. Shockingly, recent discoveries indicate that the origins of self-adornment are much earlier than modern homo sapiens arrival on the scene.

A century ago, scientists discovered eight prehistoric eagle talons in a cave in Croatia. The cavern was believed to have been used for shelter by a Neanderthal group that lived over 130,000 years ago. It was only recently discovered that these talons bear cut markings. According to specialists, these cuts indicate that the claws were either strung together as a necklace or bracelets. They have dated these carvings to approximately 80,000 years before the first known appearance of modern man in Europe. If self-expression is the core of being human, jewelry may hold the key to transition.

An Egyptian mummy’s remains are covered with jewels for the afterlife

Sending Messages

While the first known examples were derived from the hunt, pieces became more intricate as man evolved and civilizations developed. One of the oldest discoveries of modern civilization was made in the tomb of Queen Pu-abi at Ur in Ancient Mesopotamia. The queen was buried in a beaded cape made of gold and silver and embellished with lapis, carnelian, and agate beads. Although the shawl dates to approximately 2500 B.C., its beauty is as breathtaking today as it was thousands of years ago when royal tailors fabricated the stunning piece for the queen’s burial. Throughout history, the ruling class has displayed their wealth, and hence their power, on their bodies…even in death.

Then and now, self-adornment is a profound action. It is still used to convey status and hierarchy, to establish ties between heaven and earth through symbols of our faith. Today’s push present may have been the ancient reward for bearing a son. If anything, throughout the eons, we see that when it comes to the presence of jewelry, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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