At Large  May 25, 2023  Fabio Fiocchi

Etruscan Jewelry and the Charm of Gold in Antiquity

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Detail shot of a gold ear-stud: disc decorated with granulation, filigree and beaded wire. 530BC-500BC

 

Gold is perhaps the most iconic metal—an immortal symbol of wealth. Even in the ancient world, this precious resource was an object of great attention, highly desired yet hard to find. The Romans and Greeks were able to locate it in its purest form, however, only in a limited number of areas and in the form of nuggets from mines or small particles collected from rivers or desert sand. Even in those distant centuries, gold was treasured, exhibited by the rich and powerful, donated as gifts to the gods, stored in temples, and used as payment for ransoms and taxes.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Gold alabastron (perfume bottle) with a long narrow body and a pointed base, decorated with lines of granulation in a cable band on the neck and rows of zig-zags covering the body. ca. 650BC-600BC

Gold is so deeply intertwined with human society and history that it even plays an important role in many myths, such as that of King Midas (738-676 BCE), who was given the ability by the god Dionysus to turn everything he touched into gold. Midas, however, unable even to eat and drink, soon asked mercy for his greed and, following the instructions of Dionysus, he washed his body in the river Pattolo (now known as the Sarabat) which immediately took away his gift. Since then, the Sarabat became known as one of the primary sources of electro, a natural alloy of gold and silver, that was meticulously searched for among the river’s sands for centuries. The fortune of the Lydian kings—an ancient region located in the western areas of modern-day Turkey—such as that of Gige (680-644 BCE) who was instead called “pholychcrysos” (rich-in-gold), was predicated upon access to and control of gold. In fact, the Lydians' control of wealth was so great that during the second half of the 7th century BCE, the first coin to be created was made of electro.

Among the other cultures that inhabited the Western world, the Etruscans, a people with a well-known taste for luxury, attested also by the splendid painted tombs and burials with abundant grave goods, also utilized a substantial amount of that shiny and incorruptible metal. Molded into a multitude of different shapes and objects and decorated in the most diverse ways, the gold works of the Etruscans amaze with their exquisite workmanship. Some of their ornaments were made with a particular technique commonly known as “granulation” which consisted of juxtaposing tiny spheres of gold, never bigger than 1 mm in diameter, in order to create designs or patterns on a wide variety of objects.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Gold clasp or bolt-fibula, each half consisting of four hollow tubes, decorated with sphinxes and female heads in granulation; secured by long pins and hooks. 675BC-650BC

Introduced through frequent commercial interactions with the Greek and Near Eastern world, and also through Phoenician resourcefulness, granulation, and other metalworking techniques, the Etruscans saw a great proliferation in particular during the Orientalizing period (late 8th – early 6th century BCE) when there was a great spread of jewelry and goldsmithing. It is from this time that we have the most beautiful and meticulous examples of granulation decorations.

 The Bernardini tomb (ca. 675 BCE) has given us some especially extraordinary examples of Etruscan granulation. Discovered in 1876, the burial produced an impressive amount of grave goods, once belonging to a rich male warrior. Among the surprising number of precious bronze, silver, and gold objects, both imported and made locally, some of the most exquisite examples of granulation were also found. Many of them were made from buckles that were originally used for pinning the ends of a cloak to one’s shoulder.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Detail of gold alabastron (perfume bottle) with a long narrow body and a pointed base, decorated with lines of granulation in a cable band on the neck and rows of zig-zags covering the body. ca. 650BC-600BC

 

A countless number of small spheres, expertly laid by hand; thousands of singular elements with a basic shape that together are able to give life to ferocious animals, fantastic creatures, delicate birds, and solemn sphinxes, designs that were also used to decorate with other webs of intricate motifs fibulae (buckles), earrings, pendants, pots, and countless other objects.

However, the appeal of these works of art lies not only in the object itself but also in the process of its creation. We still don’t know exactly how they made such splendid examples of craftsmanship. According to one of the most accredited theories, the first step consisted in melting small portions of metal, cut from a tin wire or plate. Then, a layer of charcoal was placed in a crucible. From there, gold fragments were arranged, carefully separated from each other. It was possible to overlap multiple layers of charcoal and metal fragments in the same crucible, in order to increase production. Once completed, the crucible was heated until the gold reached its melting point, assuming a spherical form due to gravity. Once solidified the spheres were then sorted by size and placed on the surface of the object by the artisan, who picks them up one by one using the tip of a small wet brush.

The gold spheres are held in place with an organic glue compound. According to Pliny the Elder, the soldering was performed using a liquid mixture called “santerna” made by chrysocolla (malachite) powder (a copper-based ore-vinegar or urine) and “nitrium” (sodium or natural borax). The grains were permanently attached by exposing the entire object to heat or, in the most delicate cases, directing the heat of a flame at precise spots by blowing it through a small pipe. Most assuredly an impressive and complicated procedure, performed without any modern tools or technology.

About the Author

Fabio Fiocchi

Fabio is an Italian archaeologist, native to the city of Milan. He specialized in cisterns, wells and underground excavations and holds a degree in Science of Cultural Heritage from the University of Milan and in Archaeology and Cultures of the Ancient World from the University of Bologna. A lover of books and art, his work has led him to develop a particular interest in ancient everyday objects from the Celtic, Roman and Etruscan worlds.

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