Tag Archives: Crete

Gold and jewellery. From earliest times? For females only?

One of the things that struck me on recent visits to museums in Crete and Santorini was the sheer amount of gold and jewellery on display. Much of it dated from millennia ago. And the workmanship was often exquisite, as you can see.

necklaces 1400-1300 BC from Archanes, Crete

necklaces 1400-1300 BC from Archanes, Crete

Gold necklaces, rings, bead, Heraklion Museum

Made me think about what that means in practice.

Imagine goldsmiths working in Crete in 1500  or 2000 BC. They would be working with the relatively soft Bronze-Age tools—no acetylene torches for them; no hard steel implements, because smelting of iron didn’t start till around 1300-1200 BC—and with only experience and handed-down skills to guide them in their manipulation of metal and fire. And yet they produced the most fabulous objects, as you can see from some of my images here. [Click to enlarge.]

Gold jewellery, Mochlos, 2600-1900 BC

Gold jewellery, Mochlos, Crete, 2600-1900 BC

Gemstones were a harder nut to crack. Cutting gems needed tools and techniques that weren’t available to those early jewellers. So gems in early pieces are mostly polished into more natural shapes, like beads or the rounded cabochon, that can’t reveal all of the potential inner fire we expect nowadays.

Bead necklaces, Phaistos, Crete, 1400-1300 BC

Bead necklaces, Phaistos, Crete, 1400-1300 BC

Working gold

To be fair, pure gold is a soft metal and so it is relatively easy to work. Hence the beautiful and intricate gold jewellery that Bronze-Age goldsmiths could produce. Like these stunning engraved gold signet rings from the tombs at Phourni at Archanes. The one on the left depicts the goddess with a griffin and dates from 2250-2100 BC. Amazing work from 4000 years ago. The one on the right is later, 1400-1350 BC, and is a superb depiction of ritual worship. The snake goddess figures in the centre with her typical flounced skirt and bare breasts.

gold signet goddess with Phourni Crete 2250-2100 BC  gold signet tree worship Phourni 1400-1350 BC

And how did goldsmiths do such increasingly intricate engraving without steel tools? Possibly using Obsidian (volcanic glass) tools which date from at least the 5th millennium BC as shown in these finds from Turkey. Obsidian was apparently used as a sawing agent for stone seals so it may also have been used for engraving.

The Heraklion museum says that craftsmen used bronze tools to work seals in all sorts of semiprecious stones and then polished them with pumice. Presumably they used such tools for gold work, too. And tools probably evolved and improved. The earlier signet above seems more lightly engraved than the later one.

Minoan bull leaping (or bull dancing)

gold signet showing bull leaping CreteI can’t resist including one more intricate gold signet. It depicts the famous bull-leaping of Crete. It may have come from the same Phourni tombs as the two above. We can’t be sure. Arthur Evans (mentioned in my blog on women in ancient Greece) bought it in the early 20th century. The original is supposed to be in the Ashmolean Museum, though I can’t find it in the online catalogue. Perhaps the museum doubts its authenticity?

The reality of Minoan bull-leaping is depicted in the famous fresco shown below. Note that the leaping athlete is male (darker skin) and the two others are females (white skin). Apparently both male and female athletes took part in this amazingly dangerous sport. I first learned of it from reading Mary Renault’s reimagining of the Theseus story, The King Must Die. Highly recommended, if you haven’t read it.Minoan fresco bull leaping

Jewellery made from gold dates from early times

Gold has been prized from ancient times. It has such strange characteristics. It glistens and glows. And can make sheets of extraordinary thinness—it is possible to hammer a single gram of gold into a sheet one metre square. And by contrast with metals like silver, gold does not tarnish. So it’s no wonder perhaps that gold became jewellery from earliest times.

Gold jewellery, Mochlos, Crete, 2600-1900 BC

Gold jewellery, Mochlos, Crete, 2600-1900 BC

Simple bands and beaten shapes like those above became adornment for hair or clothing. The majority of the wearers would probably have been women. And since women in Crete had a lot of freedom, that’s perhaps not surprising.

When volcanic ash engulfed ancient Thera (Akrotiri) on Santorini around 1700 BC, it buried and preserved whole houses (like Pompeii). The town buildings routinely included wall paintings and often showed women. Here are two examples:

Akrotiri fresco detail, bare-breasted woman with necklacewall painting ancient Thera, Santorini, 1700 BCBoth women are wearing really elaborate earrings. The bare-breasted woman on the left appears to be wearing a bracelet and carrying a necklace. She may also be wearing one. The woman in the second image is wearing a necklace and (possibly) bracelets.

Both paintings were prominent in the buildings when they were buried by the volcanic ash, although there were also wall paintings of naked males:

Thera (Santorini) fresco, male with fish      Thera (Santorini) fresco, male with bowl      Thera (Santorini) fresco, male with fish

Loads of bling, but who was it for?

Who wore the gold and jewellery? What do you think? What about this?

Bee pendant in gold, Malia, 1700 BC

Bee pendant in gold, Malia, 1700 BC

This glorious pendant shows two bees holding a honeycomb with their legs while a bead of honey drips from their mouths. A gold cage above their heads encloses another gold bead and there are three suspended gold discs. Its workmanship is stunning. Was it worn by a woman? Or a man?

The men in the frescoes of ancient Thera aren’t wearing anything by way of clothes or jewels. But males definitely used gold  too, it seems. Finds in Crete include swords and daggers, decorated in gold. This dagger, with the pierced gold handle, is one such, not used in anger, but for ceremonial display.

Gold-handled dagger, Malia, 1800-1600 BC

Gold-handled dagger, Malia, 1800-1600 BC

In theory, this dagger could have been carried by a man or a woman, whereas the necklaces and earrings were probably worn (mostly) by women. But who wore the fabulous signet rings? Women, possibly, but I’d guess it’s more likely that the majority of the seal-ring wearers were men. Equal opportunities bling, then?

judge's gavel

africa-studio – stock.adobe.com

Remember the stern words of those ancient Greek sumptuary laws about gold and jewellery that I’ve quoted before:

A free-born woman … may not wear gold jewellery … unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring … unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.

So, in ancient Greece, the law linked gold jewellery with sex, of the illicit kind. And the sexual puritanism applied to both males and females.

Possibly, judging by the amount of gold jewellery in the museums, Greeks didn’t actually observe their own laws when it didn’t suit them? Or perhaps both women and men on Crete had always gone their own way?

Joanna Maitland author


Spinalonga : Venetians, Ottomans, Lepers

Spinalonga is a tiny island off Crete, next to a much larger peninsula, also (confusingly) called Spinalonga. It (the little island) was one of the really interesting places we visited on my recent trip to Greece. It was a beautiful day when we went there, as you can see from the image below, taken from the boat.Spinalonga, off Crete, from sea

The island has a long history and was strategically important during the wars between the Venetian and Ottoman Empires. The Seventh (and last) of the Ottoman Venetian Wars was in 1714-1718. That was when Venice finally lost Spinalonga to the Ottoman Empire.

Strategic importance?

Map of Greece, Crete, SpinalongaThis is where Spinalonga lies (circled in red on north-east of Crete in this map of Greece and the Adriatic):

The island was part of Venice’s extensive fortifications against the Ottoman Empire. They acquired Crete after the Fourth Crusade in 1204. They began fortifying Spinalonga in 1578, with blockhouses at the highest points and a ring of fortifications. This map shows their work.Spinalonga, Venetian fortifications

One of the huge bastions (highlighted yellow in the early Venetian map above) is named after Luca Michiel, the engineer who planned it in 1579. It has seven cannon ports. The half-moon-shaped (mezzaluna) Bastion Michiel is still impressive, both from the landward side and from the sea. Definitely not the place to attempt a hostile landing.

Spinalonga, Basion Michiel, land side Spinalonga, Bastion Michiel, from sea

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