Knowledge of the ancient nations was originally based on written sources. The first archaeologists lived during the Renaissance. Vasari describes how Brunelleschi went searching for antiquities and how the inhabitants of Rome called him a treasure hunter. The great discoveries created a third source of knowledge: ethnology. Foreign nations have customs that help us understand ancient customs. Western understanding of Zoroastrianism improved greatly when modern researchers met the believers and discovered that the ancient religion had survived. It’s comparable to the discovery of a coelacanth.
This is why I just read Desert Silver, in which Sigrid van Roode describes nomadic and traditional jewelry from the Middle East. It accompanies a double exposition of jewelry and scarfs in the Leiden Rijksmuseum van oudheden. I was fascinated by the objects. Until now, I always thought that veils, especially niqabs and burqas, were meant to deny women their personality, but I suddenly realize that the amulets, earrings, nose-piercings, bracelets, anklets, and rings have exactly the opposite function. And just imagine the sound of all those pieces of metal: you can distinguish women even without seeing them.
There’s much continuity. For example, the fibulae that were once in use all over the Roman Empire, survive in the Maghreb. It is easy to find a parallel for the headgear from Troy II, made famous on that photo of Sophia Schliemann, and jewelry still in use in Turkey. Eye beads found in the modern Fayum may as well have been produced in our own age. Perhaps the most fascinating parallel is a Roman necklace with small, tube-like amulet container, which is still in use. Rings with gemstones were used from the Hellenistic age, and their motifs are still in used, although sometimes in a stylized form, as the Sunna Islam does not allow artists to represent human forms.
So, a nice book, that opens – at least for me – a field I had never known to exist. There’s a chapter on the types of jewelry, a chapter on ancient survivals that also discusses the trade routes along which ancient motifs could spread all over the Near East, and there are chapters on the jewel’s economic functions, religious significance, status, technical aspects, and the way jewelry is believed to protect people. The final chapter discusses the ancient tradition and modern revivals. I was impressed.
Disclosure: the author is a friend of mine. She is also the webmaster of Bedouin Silver.