In our culture it is normal that people are wearing jewelry. But when did people start to wear jewelry and how do we know that? What kind of jewelry did the people in prehistoric times decorated their bodies with? What is the significance of jewelry in those times. Read the blog and you will know!
What do we know about jewelry in prehistoric times?
Let’s start with explaining when you speak about prehistoric times. Prehistoric time is the period in a culture where we don’t have any written information off. In countries like Egypt and Sumeria one could write 3000 years sooner than in Europe; so prehistoric time ended 3000 years earlier than in Europe.
All we know comes from finds, digged by archeologists. We know from studying materials we have found. Houses and clothes etc. vanished but in graves we have found jewelry. Luckely in the prehistoric times buried their death with their best and most expensive garments and ornaments. With that evidence we know how jewelry in those days looked like.
Where were pieces of jewelry made from in those days?
It is very likely that humans in the prehistoric decorated their body before they even had clothing. People living near the sea used fishbones, shells, shark teeth or colored pebbels to decorate themselves. Humans living more inland used parts of animals, they killed for food, as ornaments: like antlers, tusks, ivory and bones or feathers. Later they transformed those materials in elaborate forms.
In the prehistoric humans lived from gathering and they were never sure about the availability of food. After they discovered how to tame animals and how to grow grains they abandoned nomadic life of gathering to a settled social order. At this point most of the ancient civilizations started at the banks of large rivers. Here they find enough water for their animals and land. Along the banks of the rivers they founded alluvial deposits of minerals: gold and precious stones.
The gems were appreciated for their brilliance and durability and people made adornments of them. But not only adornments: In Egypt they crushed turquoise and malachite to make eye make-up and in China they pulvered pearls as a medicine.
What types of jewelry occur in the prehistoric times?
People loved decorating themselves and over time they made jewelry for every part of the body. Like crowns, hairpins, combs, earrings, nose rings or lip rings for decorating the head. For the arms and hands they had bracelets, rings and armlets. For the torso they designed necklaces, brooches, fibulae (pins to keep clothing together), belts and breastplates. And for the feet and legs there were toe rings, ancle bracelets and shoe buckles.
They did not started to make jewelry for decoration of the body, but as functional objects. Like fibulae to keep two pieces of cloth together, rings were used as seals. Or they were used as identification of their wealth, status or authority. To be clear: jewelry is only called jewelry when it is made form durable material, which can decorate the body. Flowers or leaves for decoration the hair for instance is not called jewelry.
Why people wore jewelry?
Someone found a necklace, made of fishbones in a cave in Monaco (the earliest finding of jewelry in Europe) from around 25.000 years ago. But we don’t have a clue where the necklace stands for: was it a gift, a status symbol? It’s difficult to say. Maybe it’s a sign that you belong to a certain group or family? Archeologists found beads made of the Nassarius shell, that are at least 100.000 years old: maybe the oldest known jewelryartifacts and we still don’t know whether the beads were used to made a necklace off or were used as a kind of ‘money’ to exchange goods with. Or both.
There is also a ‘need’ to wear jewelry. Wearing the same kind of jewelry is a sign of acceptance. It can be a sense of identity or the believe that adornments bring you luck, or strength, wealth. One of the first materials to be just for making jewelry were shells, and fishbones, but also material derived from a hunt, like teeth or feathers. It was used as a kind of amulet: wearing trophies could bring you a good hunt. And a good hunt was essential for surviving in those days.
Jewelry was worn as amulets to bring good luck or protect you from evil and illness. They thought that jewelry with certain gemstones had curing, preventing or magical properties. They could bring you wealth or they helped you to reach ‘the other side’ safe.
Culture in jewelry
The prehistory can be devided in three periods: the Stone Age, the Iron Age and the Bronze Age. The names reflect to the materials people started to use making tools or jewelry. Gemstones were combined with those metals in that time. The material and the kind of jewelry people wore is not only a matter of time, but also a matter of culture.
In Asia people wore nose rings and anckle bracelets. While in Europe in ancient times they wore more necklaces, brooches or rings. Probably that is caused by the original functions of the jewelry. In Europe they needed a kind of clothing, due to the climate, and they used an artifact (fibulae or brooche) to keep the clothing together. And they used rings as a seal to mark an agreement of some sort. Historically Asia influenced jewelry in terms of style and design the most.
Not only culture or the presents of certain materials influenced the way jewelry was designed and made. There were different patterns and designs for men and women, for older people and children, for poor and rich people, or for free men and slaves. But you can say that in every known culture women were the most consistent wearers of jewelry. In the last period of the prehistoric women got a lot of jewelry as a wedding dowry; handy to store your wealth or used as a trade good or kind of currency.
In which civilizations jewelry was very important?
Three ancient civilizations were very outspoken in the development of jewelry: Egypt, India and China. All of them cultures that started on the banks of great rivers: the Nile, the Ganges and the Yangse Kiang.
The area of Egypt and Mesopotamia started with the invention and development of metallurgy, gemcollection on the banks of the Nile, the Eupfrate and the Tigris, and making glass. So they were fully equiped to make jewelry and they did that for thousand of years. Their tradition of making jewelry was one of high quality. They influenced the culture of making jewelry, that started later (around 4000 years later) in Europe: influenced the style, the use of materials and the way of making jewelry.
The Indian civilisation started on the banks of the Ganges and jewelry was a very important part of their daily life, religion and general culture. The development of making jewelry was in India much earlier than in the regions in the neighbourhood. They were the first who could find and gather gold and process that material into jewelry. It was so popular that golden jewelry not only became a part of a dowry, but also a great tradeproduct.
The Chinese on the banks of the Yangse Kiang developped a style of jewelry making, that influenced the whole Asian world. They use themes like nature, animals and supernatural creatures, like dragons and enormous snakes.
To help your memory:
people used jewelry for a number of reasons:
- Functional: to keep cloths in place (fibulae)
- Emotional: as a symbol of status (wedding ring, crown)
- Solidarity: ethnic, religious or social affiliation (cross, ring)
- Superstition: protection from evil (amulets)
- Personal: artistic decoration of the body
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