Unexpected beautiful Phoenician jewelry from 1500 BC

Unexpected beautiful Phoenician jewelry

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    In the 1990s, I visited Lebanon, and to be honest it could not impress me much. Beirut was still in ruins, the famous cedar trees in the North disappointing, the neon-lighted cave very noisy, and only the temple of Baalbek impressive. And I did not come by any stunning piece of Phoenician jewelry.

    Last year we were looking after a country with no or not that many Covid-19 infections and so we went to Malta. One of the first days we (of course) visited the Archeological Museum and without any pre-warning, I stand before a window with the most stunning, tiny high-qualified goldwork I have ever seen.

    Making a picture and zooming in you could even see so much more about all those objects. Even my husband was astonished and that means ‘real beautiful business’. I started to read the signs and they all were made in the former Lebanon, Phoenicia, or Canaan as it was called before that.

    Since I don’t think that you will visit Malta shortly and if you do go and visit that museum, I promised myself to write a blog about this stunning jewelry and show you all the beauties.

    Map of Lebanon/Phoenicia
    Map of Lebanon/Phoenicia
    temple of Baalbek in Lebanon
    Temple of Baalbek / Lebanon

    Let’s talk about Phoenicia first

    Phoenicia was where Lebanon is now. It was not a country, but a confederation of cities, like Acre, Ashdod, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Ugarit. The most important ones were Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, but also the cities in the Phoenician colonies could join the confederation. They all were situated near water.

    The countryside was barren and people had really trouble to grow enough food to feed themselves and the people in the cities. So the Phoenicians had to come up with a solution.

    The workmen in the cities were very talented and could make stunning items. And there were enough fishermen, excellent in roaming the Mediterranean Sea.

    So the solution was found… Phoenician merchants traveled by ship to places around the Mediterranean and exchanged the Phoenician items against food.

    No money existed at the time

    Trading in exchanging goods can be risky. For one, you might want the products the other party offers, but that party does not need your items. Then you have to exchange them anyway and hope for the best that the next place you visit needs the products you just bought but not needed.

    And there is always a chance that the other party is not happy with the deal and you cannot come back there anymore. Then there is the language problem.

    With drawing pictures of what you have to offer and pictures of what goods you need, or talking with hands and feet you come far. But the finesses and dealing with problems about the exchange rate… Awkward.

    Decorated golden buckle or part of the bracelet. Phoenician jewelry, 5th century BC
    Decorated golden buckle or part of the bracelet. Phoenician jewelry, 5th century BC
    Gold double amulet, depicting the Egyptian gods Horus and Anubis. Phoenician jewelry. Malta.
    Gold double amulet, depicting the Egyptian gods Horus and Anubis. Phoenician jewelry. Malta.

    Introduction of money

    The Phoenicians were very creative merchants. They started to make ingots of various metals, like gold, copper, and iron that equate the value of certain items. Their clients gradually accepted the ingots in exchange for their products.

    The next step was to cut the ingots into smaller pieces, print the image of the product that you can buy with them on the piece (or coin). Slowly the system of money grew and for the Phoenician merchants, coins were easier to transport.

    Around 1500 BC Phoenician cities were very prosperous because of the trade and the productions of high qualified items, that were wanted with their clients.

    Phoenicians, very talented people

    The Phoenicians did not only invent and introduce money or coins to this world but they were also master in making ships that roamed the Mediterranean.

    They established the first large commercial network that expanded from Lebanon to the Gulf of Gibraltar between the 8th and the 6th century BC. And they were able to import raw material, bring it to their home cities, work on it, and export daily products and art items their clients wanted.

    The artist Hiram of Tyre/Phoenicia was even invited, according to the Old Testament, to build and decorate the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

    Navigation system invented

    Besides the commercial trade network, they implemented a great-working navigation system, that brought them effectively to their clients. That navigation system with the best routes and the knowledge about the winds and the weather was a well-kept secret, that maintained their supremacy in the region.

    There is enough proof, because of the many archeological findings that the Phoenician traders had trading stations and ports all over the Mediterranean, and along the shores of the Atlantic, in Morocco, Spain, and even the Azores, France, and the United Kingdom.

    In all those places we have found jewelry and Phoenician art as grave finds or gifts. It even seems possible that with their ships they could have reached the US, although there is no proof that they actually did reach the US.

    Golden jewelry set with gemstones found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Golden jewelry set with gemstones found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Golden and gemstone grave find. Found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Golden and gemstone grave find. Found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry

    Invented the modern-day writing

    And they invented the modern-day writing system, the root for the Greek alphabet. Very practical when it comes to trades contracts and seeing that the contracts are followed.

    They were the first blowing technique to make glass transparent and easier to work with. Also, the cloisonné and the repoussé technique come from the Phoenician artists.

    The Phoenician people were not very gifted in discovering scientific or abstract things. They were practical and invented things that made life better or easier like they used coins and writing for their trade. And they were very talented in working with difficult and extraordinary techniques to make stunning jewelry, that could be traded and supplied with the money to buy food.

    Gold combination ring of 2 stirrup-shaped hoops, which form an oval bezel, depicting an oared ship. Phoenician jewelry. Malta.
    Gold combination ring of 2 stirrup-shaped hoops, which form an oval bezel, depicting an oared ship. Phoenician jewelry. Malta.
    Glass beads necklace. Phoenician jewelry. Malta.
    Glass beads necklace. Phoenician jewelry. Malta.

    Influenced by…

    Their homeland was in and around Lebanon, as we know it now. In the North, it ended near Arwad in Syria and in the South in Acre in Israel. They were called Canaanites before the Iron Age and the Greeks called them Phoenicians, after the purple color they dyed fabric with (Phoe Ni Kes).

    All the people they traded with and the people they conquered influenced their crafts and art. The Phoenicians used all those influences to make products that they could sell to those clients, like the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and people from the shores and the islands of the Mediterranean.

    They were dominated by the Egyptians, stood under the influence of the Persian Empire, and were very friendly with the Greeks. This did not change their own art style entirely, but they incorporated the foreign styles, to make a new one. One art style to make items that could be sold to the market.

    The reason that those products of art, which looked so much like the art items of the clients themselves, were so much wanted, is that the techniques they used were so sophisticated that they could not be copied by the clients themselves.

    The client was the king for the Phoenician merchants and artists and he had to be served. Everything to keep the Phoenician cities prosperous and to keep food on the table. The food they could not provide for in their own country.

    To the art of making jewelry

    Jewelry making was an art that was present from the Canaanite Period and had a rich tradition in Phoenicia. We have found examples in many graves throughout all of the Mediterranean. The quality of the techniques used was outstanding, even according to the standards of today.

    They could work in ‘repoussé’ (three-dimensional image or relief in which the image has been knocked out from the backside) and ‘cloisonné’ (enamel process in which the drawing is soldered in thin metal strips to a metal or porcelain surface).

    Their used techniques included ‘granulation’ (decoration of tiny balls or grains are applied to a surface in a pattern, or massed to fill in an empty part of the decoration) and ‘filigree’ work (very delicate metalwork).

    For making pendants figures and charms they used a type of molds that they filled with glass. It was extremely difficult to get this right.

    Another technique they used to make jewelry is faience, which was very popular in Egypt too at the time. Faience is a substitute for precious metals and gemstones. It is made in molds, using fired sand and a glaze to make the desired object.

    Gold fibula found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Gold fibula found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Gold bracelet, granulate technique, found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Gold bracelet, granulate technique, found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry

    Materials used

    They loved to use gold in Phoenician jewelry, but also glass paste to make beads and pendants. Glass paste was used to replace expensive gemstones.

    It is possible that they used silver too, but we have not found much silver jewelry yet, it just did not survive the ravages of time. But we do find bronze, precious gemstones, carnelian, and glass.

    Decorative motifs

    Phoenician jewelry had its own motifs and due to the influence of other cultures and the demands of the market, the traditional Phoenician jewelry motifs could be altered.

    Most commonly used are religious and plant theme motifs, like the lotus flower and the palmette, and animal motifs like the scarab, sphinx, and griffin. Most likely influenced by Egyptian customers.

    The earrings in the shape of an ankh (Egyptian cross) and rings with a rectangular bezel or with rounded corners were popular.

    Phoenician jewelry designers were more interested in how a jewel looked like than whether it followed a specific style. Art was produced for commercial purposes, but also religion and the spreading of ideas and concepts were also important for the designers.

    How do we know about Phoenician jewelry?

    During the time a lot of Phoenician jewelry disappeared, but luckily archeologists found enough examples of Phoenician jewelry in tombs (grave gifts) and temples (offering to the gods).

    In ancient tombs in Phoenicia (so in Lebanon, Southern Syria, and Northern Israel) we found gold and some silver jewelry, gemstones, religious objects like scarabs and ankhs, and other objects made of ivory, clay, and bronze. The jewelry and other objects denoted the status of the deceased person.

    It is remarkable that a lot of jewelry and objects were rather small, as I found out in the Museum for Archeology in Malta too.

    Not only in tombs and temples in Phoenicia jewelry and object made by the Phoenicians are found. Also in the necropolises of the cities that are closely related in the confederation of cities archeologists found Phoenician jewelry.

    Like in Malta and Kition on Cyprus. But also in Carthage in Tunesia, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.

    Golden earrings found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Golden earrings found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Golden earrings found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry
    Golden earrings found in Palmyra Syria. Phoenician jewelry

    The remarkable thing is that you can see looking at the Phoenician jewelry found in a grave in what period that person has been buried. Every period in Phoenician jewelry has its own themes and is influenced by other cultures.

    The Phoenician jewelry found in a grave in Kition must have been a wealthy person, maybe a queen, and is clearly influenced by the Egyptian culture. The tomb must date from the 8th century BC. In this way Phoenician jewelry may act as a kind of C14 method, used to see how old a certain (organic) object is.

    Although you may never have heard about Phoenician jewelry before, this jewelry still influenced our modern designs. Because of the techniques they invented or improved. The way they incorporated influence from outside, but still keep their own Phoenician jewelry style. And the material they used.

    It is interesting to see how Phoenician jewelry found in tombs and temples can date the period in which the person is buried. In this way, Phoenician jewelry is important to interpret history.

    FlorenceJewelshop designs and makes modern pieces of jewelry from gemstones and precious metal. History and other cultures influence my collection if only because I buy my material on my travels. Where I inhale other jewelry trends and traditions, which influence my own designs.

    Just visit my shop if you want to have a look at how history and other cultures influenced my designs. Designs that are unique and one-of-a-kind, since they are used only once. You don’t want to meet another lady with the same jewelry, made by FlorenceJewelshop, do you?

    FlorenceJewelshop published a PDF with dozens of tips about how to accentuate your best features with the right jewelry. It is free of charge. Just let me know where I can send it to.

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