16 Feb Bead Around the World – Mesopotamia 2500 BC
It is astonishing how little has changed in jewellery aesthetics since the beginning of civilisation. This Mesopotamian gold leaf headdress with lapis lazuli and carnelian is over 4500 years old. It is part of the famous Ur jewellery discovered in the inter-war years by the British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, who named the whole area of 16 tombs the Royal Cemetery. Ur was a Sumerian city by River Tigris, about 200km north-west of Basrah in modern Iraq.
At the British Museum we can see many pieces of jewellery and other fascinating artefacts. This magnificent gold head-gear ensemble from the tomb of Queen Puabi is outrageous and very contemporary. But is it aesthetics that is at play here? According to a study from the 1960s reassessing the original Woolley report, it was unlikely that fine jewellery was produced for everyday use for any individual. The purpose of Mesopotamian jewellery was primarily religious.* These pieces were produced as offerings to gods. Kings and queens were adorned with them AFTER they died. Their servants were also decorated with jewellery and buried alongside their masters following them to the afterlife. The technical development of jewellery making and craftsmanship were driven by this ritual significance and jewellers were directly commissioned and supervised by temple treasurers and priests.
The bead materials used in the jewellery were not produced locally. They were brought from elsewhere – lapis lazuli mentioned in Mesopotamian myths and regarded worthy for gods and kings came from north-east Afghanistan, carnelian from Iran and Gujarat and metals from Iran and Anatolia. This indicates active international trade. Settlements like Ur had 30,000 to 40,000 people and they were the first cities in human history. The Mesopotamians devised new systems of power and control coordinating groups of people on this scale. First they had to have thriving agriculture, which was possible in the fertile land between the two rivers. Then the leaders established a societal structure that mobilised that agricultural surplus and ‘exchange it for exotic materials along extended trade routes. That surplus would have fed and supported people freed from the constraints of agricultural work – priests, soldiers, administrators and, critically, craftsmen able to specialise in making complex luxury objects’. **
Strings of beads like those that covered the body of Queen Puabi may or may not have been worn on living people, but the combination of dark blue and terracotta red with gold is lively and beautiful to look at and wear. The use of triangular and round shapes as well as stripes are simple yet very effective. Hairpipe (elongated oval tube) beads were the main components in the design. It is amazing how much ancient objects tell us and inspire us thousands of years later. (Check below some Ur-inspired pieces in my collection using lapis lazuli, coral and red agate with brass.)
*’The Ur Jewellery; A re-assessment in the light of some recent discoveries‘ K.R. Maxwell-Hyslop, 1960, The British Institute for the Study of Iraq. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4199674?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
** ‘A History of the world in 100 objects’ N. MacGregor, 2012, Penguin.
Images (c) British Museum (c) Penn Museum