©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Jewelry: Never Just Jewelry, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 18 February 2019.
Jewelry: Never Just Jewelry
The fifty-six pre-Roman amber objects in this catalogue can be considered collectively as jewelry. However, in the ancient world, as now, jewelry was never just jewelry. Today, throughout the world, jewelers, artisans, and merchants make or sell religious symbols, good-luck charms, evil eyes, birthstones, tiaras, mourning pins, wedding rings, and wristwatches. Jewelry can signal allegiance to another person, provide guidance, serve a talismanic function, ward away danger, or link the wearer to a system of orientation—as does a watch set to Greenwich Mean Time—or to ritual observances. Birthstones and zodiacal images can connect wearers to their planets and astrological signs. Certain items of jewelry serve as official insignia: for example, the crown jewels of a sovereign or the ring of the Pontifex Maximus. A cross or other religious symbol can demonstrate faith or an aspect of belief. Not only goldsmiths make jewelry; so also do healers and other practitioners with varying levels of skill. In the West today, most jewelry is made for the living; in other parts of the world, objects of adornment may be particular to the rituals of death and intended as permanent accompaniments for the deceased’s remains. Much jewelry, especially if figured, belongs to a phenomenology of images, and it functions in ritual ways. It is part of a social flow of information and can establish, modify, and comment on major social categories, such as age, sex, and status, since it has value, carries meaning, and suggests communication within groups, regions, and often larger geographical areas.
Underlying my discussion of ancient carved amber is the belief that jewelry (adornment and body ornamentation) is value-laden and that its form and material qualities (the ancient use of rare and exotic materials reflects labor, skill, and knowledge-intensive production) are powerful indicators of social identity. Permanent ornaments can endure beyond one human life and can connect their wearers to ancestors, thus playing a crucial role in social continuity—especially when we consider that such objects are imbued with an optical authority that words and actions often lack, or carry messages too dangerous or controversial to put into words. In life, in funeral rituals, and in the grave, the decoration of the body with amber jewelry and other body ornaments would have had a social function, solidifying a group’s belief systems and reiterating ideas about the afterworld. Perhaps more than any other aspect of the archaeological record, body ornamentation is a point of access into the social world of the past. Ethnographers see body ornamentation as affirming the social construct and structure and, when worn by the political elite, as guaranteeing group beliefs. Interpretations of the meanings of body ornamentation imagery must consider how “artistic” languages work to create expressive effects that are dependent upon the setting.
Jewelry is made to be worn; it is often bestowed or given as a gift at significant threshold dates; and it is regularly imbued with or accrues sentimental or status value because of the giver or a previous wearer or donor. In antiquity, jewelry also was given to the gods (figure 2). Dedications might be made at the transition to womanhood, following a successful birth, or in thanksgiving. Jewelry of gold, amber, ivory, or other precious materials might be placed on cult statues to form part of the statue’s kosmos, or embellishment. In notable cases, such embellishment was later renewed and the old material buried as deposits in sanctuaries.
Jewelry is one of the most powerful and pervasive forms in which humans construct and represent beliefs, values, and social identity. When made by artists or artisans of the highest skill, lifelike images can carry magical and dynamic religious properties and can even be highly charged ritual objects in their own right. Tiny carved amber images buried with people considered to be members of religious-political elites may well have played such a role.
The nature and role of amber-workers—jewelers, pharmacists, priests, “wise women,” and magicians—are critical to reading body ornaments. Not only the materials and subjects, but also the technology of jewelry-making, were integral to its effect. If the materials were precious and the making mythic or magical, the results were appropriate for the elite, including the gods. The concept of “maker” also includes supernatural entities, such as magician-gods and other mythic artisans. In the Greek-speaking world, the Iliad describes Hephaistos at work in his marine grotto, making arms, armor, and jewelry, elegant brooches, pins, bracelets, and necklaces. The god crafted Harmonia’s necklace and Pandora’s crown. Daidalos put his hand to all sorts of creations and gave his name to one of the most famous of all Greek objects of adornment: Odysseus’s brooch.
This said, there is a problem with the language. The modern word jewelry is, in the end, limiting and fails to encompass the full significance of the carved ambers. The terms ornament and body ornamentation, adornment and object of adornment, too, are problematic. One of the more accurate terms, amulet (figure 3), is also loaded, as it is situated on a much-discussed crossroads among magic, medicine, ritual, and religion. Amulet is a modern word, derived from the Latin amuletum, used to describe a powerful or protective personal object worn or carried on the person. “Because of its shape, the material from which it is made, or even just its color,” an amulet “is believed to endow its wearer by magical means with certain powers and capabilities.”
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Jewelry: Never Just Jewelry