Pair of wrist bracelets in the form of coiled snakes (back clasp, closed) (-0225/-0175) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
In the ancient Mediterranean, both people and mythological beings were depicted wearing jewelry. In some instances, animals and inanimate objects were adorned as well.
The materials, workmanship, and choice of imagery can reveal the context in which a piece of jewelry was created and hint at its multiple functions, from embodying affection to promoting political ideas.
Admired styles were copied and adapted, dispersed through migrating artisans and communities, and created early fashion trends.
Warding Off Evil & Misfortune
One of the most important functions of early jewelry centered on its perceived ability to protect the wearer from potential harm, illness, and the malevolent forces of nature. This was especially important during rites of passage (birth, puberty, marriage, pregnancy, and death), when individuals face life-changing transitions full of danger and uncertainty.
These objects imbued with supernatural protective powers are usually referred to as amulets.
The boy in this ancient Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait carries a small round container for amulets on his necklace.
Cameo set in a 19th century mount (2nd–3rd century A.D.) by Unknown and Alessandro CastellaniThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The relief on this Roman cameo (hardstone carving in relief) is the mythical Medusa. One of the three Gorgons, Medusa and her two sisters were so horrifying that anyone who looked at them turned to stone.
Gorgons were popular motifs on amulets because their fearsome appearance was thought to protect the wearer from harm by frightening away evil spirits.
Medusa’s story and appearance change drastically through the centuries. She was initially depicted as a grotesque monster, with snakes growing from her head and other supernatural details, such as fangs or wings (example on the left).
Later representations, like this one, depict her as increasingly human and beautiful. However, her direct and unwavering gaze remains constant (example on the right).
This Roman gold ring with an unusual high relief cameo depicts Minerva, the warrior goddess. Similar to an amulet, a ring with an image of a divinity brought the wearer under the deity's protection. The goddess, carved from green chalcedony, wears a snake-edged aegis (protective garment) and a Corinthian helmet. Minerva was a popular motif on rings as a protectress of heroes.
Finger Ring with a Siren, Sphinx, and Hippocamp Finger Ring with a Siren, Sphinx, and Hippocamp (550–500 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
In many cultures, the protective qualities of jewelry would extend beyond this life and into the next. Some amulets were designed to provide aid and security during the perilous journey through the Underworld.
Gold rings like this one were especially sought after in Etruria (currently central Italy) and are associated with women’s burials.
Finger Ring with a Siren, Sphinx, and Hippocamp (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The ring depicts mythological creatures that sometimes figured in sculptures outside tomb entrances and would act as guardians, accompanying the spirits of the deceased to the afterlife.
At the top is a siren (half bird and half woman who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of her song and also sometimes served as protectors of tombs). . .
Next, a seated sphinx (a creature with a lion's body and a woman’s head) with its head turned back. . .
and finally a hippocamp (often called a sea-horse, with the upper body of a horse and the lower body of a fish).
Displays of Wealth, Power, and Influence
In the ancient Mediterranean, like today, a major function of jewelry was to display the wealth and status of the wearer.
This aspect is largely based on cultural attitudes toward certain materials used in jewelry manufacturing, either because they were hard to obtain or working with them required the skills of trained artisans. Other materials achieved high status because they were transported across great distances and were thus scarce and exotic.
Mummy Portrait of a Woman (A.D. 100) by Isidora MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The woman in this Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait wears luxurious gold jewelry adorned with emeralds, amethyst, and pearls, identifying her as a person of substantial wealth and social position.
Collection of Ptolemaic Jewelry (-0225/-0175) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The Getty Villa Museum holds a collection of Ptolemaic gold jewelry with a distinct royal context.
The Ptolemaic dynasty was a wealthy ancient Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic Period (305 BC–30 BC). It was one of the largest economies in the Mediterranean until Rome's annexation of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in 30 BC.
Commonalities between the materials and the workmanship of the various pieces indicate they were probably made by Greek goldsmiths working in more than one workshop in Alexandria, Egypt and were created to be worn as an ensemble.
Diadem (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The grouping is crowned by this gold diadem (a headband worn by royalty).
The original owner is unknown but could have been an elite member of the exclusive circle of dynastic princesses, who, ornamented in her golden finery, served in one of the royal cults devoted to the queen.
A single torch, created from highly skilled handling of tiny spheres or granules of precious metal and filigree (intricate wirework) decorates each side and is surrounded by delicate floral motifs.
For ancient Greeks, the presence of torches conferred a religious meaning associated with many divinities, including Nike (goddess of victory), Eros (god of carnal love), Dionysus (god of fertility), and the underworld goddesses, Persephone and Hecate.
In Egypt, they were also important to the cult of Isis (goddess of fertility, healing, magic, and “mother of all the gods”).
Social and economic changes during the Hellenistic period created a wealthy clientele eager to display their riches. As a result, the demand for gold jewelry increased.
On this funerary relief, a woman reaches out to lift the lid of a jewelry box held by an attendant. She wears numerous snake bracelets, presumably made of gold, that signal her wealth.
Spiral bracelets in the form of snakes, worn coiled around arms or wrists and often in pairs, were fashionable in this era.
Snakes were frequent and highly symbolic in ancient myths and art. Across the Mediterranean, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and later the Romans, conferred upon them many different meanings, particularly rebirth, transformation, healing, and immortality due to their shedding skin. Because of this, snake bangles and other adornments were seen to protect the wearer.
Tangible Expression of Sentiment
In antiquity, “tokens of affection” or “mementos” were gifted to lovers or family and friends to convey sentiments of love in a tangible form. They also served as reminders or souvenirs upon the death of a loved one.
These would usually be decorated with the gods and goddesses of love (Eros and Aphrodite for the Greeks), inscriptions, or symbolic flowers.
In this remembrance cameo, a hand pinches an earlobe between the thumb and forefinger. In Roman art and literature, this motif signified a request for attention.
Above the hand is a knotted object which could share a similar meaning with the modern custom of tying a knot in a handkerchief to remember something important.
Surrounding the imagery is a long inscription in Greek that reads: "Remember me, your dear sweetheart, and farewell, Sophronios."
In both myth and art, Aphrodite's beauty was often embellished in precious jewelry as a model for mortal women. This aspiration is seen in depictions of Aphrodite herself, her companion Eros, or her sacred bird, the dove.
This specific scene depicts the Erotostasia (weighing of love), which may accord with our current notion of “he loves me, he loves me not.”
Evidently, the outcome lies outside human control.
Leech Fibula with Rosettes (Front, Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum
In addition to its cultural and aesthetic functions, people also wore jewelry for utilitarian purposes.
Before the invention of pockets or buttons, jewelry could provide a similar function. This leech-shaped fibula (clasp or brooch) is made entirely of gold and would have been used to fasten clothing.
The two joined halves are decorated with beaded wire and small rosettes along the spine of a hollow bow.
Engraved gold rings were often used as seals. The image in white shows us the impression the ring would have made.
The surface of this gold ring is engraved with a draped actor, standing in a three-quarter profile and contemplating a mask held with both outstretched hands.
Promoting Political and Religious Ideals
Some of jewelry’s less obvious roles include its use in furthering political, social, and patriotic ends.
It was commonplace for royalty to display their “legitimate right to rule” by adorning themselves with family coats of arms and other emblems. These symbols would be represented in luxurious jewelry and passed on to the next generation of rulers.
Similarly, the reigning powers and elite groups would use jewelry to show their ancestral ties to deities.
Hairnet (Group Shot (.1-.11))The J. Paul Getty Museum
This elaborate gold hairnet depicting Aphrodite is one of the few surviving from antiquity. Its detailed decorations confirm the extraordinary level of finery produced by goldsmiths of the ancient Mediterranean.
Hairnet (Front, medallion)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The central medallion consists of a relief bust of Aphrodite with Eros clinging to the drapery on her left shoulder.
The Ptolemaic queens often presented themselves as descendants of Aphrodite. Here, the goddess’s features and hairstyle are similar to those of Queen Arsinoe II, one of the most revered figures of her time. Arsinoe became co-regent of Thrace, Anatolia, and Macedonia and eventually queen of the whole Ptolemaic Kingdom. She was even given the Egyptian title "King of Upper and Lower Egypt," making her pharaoh as well.
Understanding the political importance of the royal portrait, Alexander the Great created a distinctive representation distinguished by his long, flowing, leonine hairstyle.
Portraits of him remained popular for centuries after his death. The Hellenistic rulers who succeeded Alexander often wore engraved gems with these portraits to show their ties to him and to demonstrate the legitimacy of their right to rule.
Hellenistic rulers who admired Alexander would even incorporate some of his features, especially his hairstyle, into their own portraits.
Wreath (3rd–2nd century B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Some jewelry served its purpose by not being worn at all. Ceremonial jewelry was dedicated to the gods in sanctuaries or placed in graves as a funerary offering.
Gold wreaths were modeled from real laurel wreaths worn in religious ceremonies and given as prizes in athletic and artistic contests. While similar pieces do bear signs of wear, the fragile composition of this particular wreath suggests that it was probably not meant to be worn. It is likely an example of jewelry made for a tomb.
Ring with Greek Inscription to Hera Ring with Greek Inscription to Hera (about 575 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The front of this unusual gold ring is inscribed in Greek with the words, “Harriknidas dedicated [this] to the goddess white-armed Hera.”
Signs of considerable wear on this outer edge indicate that it was worn for a long time before the wearer decided to have it inscribed. The large diameter suggests that it belonged to a man—most likely its owner, Harriknidas.
Rings were a favorite dedication at Hera’s sanctuary in Argos, Greece, where over 600 have been found. Almost all of these rings were made of bronze. As an example in gold, this ring represented a costly gift to the goddess.
These examples are only some of the many uses of jewelry in antiquity. Other functions include using jewelry as a form of portable wealth, like a currency.
Today, jewelry is often described as “wearable art,” placing an emphasis on its aesthetic component. While styles have morphed to accommodate current taste, traditional functions of jewelry continue to be observed today. Modern charms and pendants are updated versions of amulets in antiquity. Likewise, we still employ jewelry to enhance our beauty, as a symbol of status or femininity, and to express our religious or spiritual beliefs.
© 2022 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
Learn more about jewelry in the Getty collection in the following resources:
The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Antiquities Collection: Revised Edition. (Getty Publications, 2010)
Looking at jewelry. A guide to terms, styles and techniques. (Getty Publications, 2019)
The Gift of Jewelry Was an Ancient Love Language, an article about love tokens in antiquity on Getty News & Stories
To cite this exhibition, please use: "All That Glitters: Jewelry in the Ancient Mediterranean" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.