Mycenaean Jewelry

Beginning in the Shaft Grave Period, the rulers of Mycenae not only patronized a guild of ivory carvers but also a guild of jewelers, who were probably inspired and instructed by, and perhaps originally were, Minoan artisans, who had had a venerable tradition in the art. The craftsmen of Mycenae fashioned gold rings with intricate designs of battle and hunting, and heraldic and religious scenes, and also produced lens-shaped and almond-shaped sealstones and gems of semi-precious materials, which they engraved with men, monsters and animals arranged in compositions similar to those on the ivories and gold rings.1

Since the shaping, and especially the engraving, of such tiny, hard stones is an extremely precise and delicate craft which requires years of apprenticeship to master, and since both the shapes and the decoration of seventh-century gems and coins so closely resembled the jewels of the Mycenaean Age, late nineteenth-century archaeologists like Arthur Evans felt that there had been an uninterrupted tradition of Greek gem-carving from the Late Bronze Age until the historical period,2 with Cecil Torr prepared to date the entire Mycenaean Period just prior to ca. 700 B.C. party on the basis of carved gems.3 Further excavation, plus chronological reconsiderations, seemed to refute their belief, as Evans later admitted, but since he still detected remarkable similarities of seventh-century gems to Minoan-Mycenaean ones, he dropped the idea of survival, and replaced it with one of revival.4

According to the current scenario, the jeweler’s art perished toward the end of the Mycenaean Period. By ca. 750 B.C. “the native art of gem-cutting” returned to Greece, but since barren centuries separated one “native” manifestation from the other, art historians could not consider Greece itself as the source of the revival. Thus they once again turned to the Near East as a place for the Greeks to relearn the craft.5 At first the Greeks used softer stones, formed various shapes, and engraved the gems by hand with the same type of geometrical patterns and figures as one finds on contemporary pottery. Within a few decades of their “relearning” the craft, the artisans created designs which, like seventh-century pottery, developed a more naturalistic, curvilinear appearance. Within seventy-five years of the re-introduction of the “native art,” they again employed the cutting wheel used 500 years earlier, again standardized the shapes of the gems, mainly to the Mycenaean preference, and engraved themes extremely reminiscent of those belonging to the Mycenaean Age.6 In carving technique, shaping and design, the early seventh-century jewelers “were in some mysterious way imitating the gems which had been made at least half a millennium earlier.”7

In order to explain the “mystery,” scholars now assume that seventh-century artists not only followed a line of artistic progression similar to that of their ancestors, but that they actually found and imitated 500-year-old gems. They seem to have made such expert copies that even today, when the find-spots of individual gems are unknown, some experts cannot decide whether they fall into the Mycenaean Age or the seventh century, or else one group of scholars will champion Mycenaean dates for gems which other scholars place 500 years later. Even instances when the experts know the provenience and associated material of some gems are not always helpful, since they sometimes judge the gems to be half a millennium older or younger than the associated material, on the assumption that many gems are 500-year-old heirlooms, or else that late gems somehow slipped into (or were dedicated at) 500-years-older structures.8

Before Egypt provided absolute dates for the Mycenaean Period, late nineteenth-century scholars had none of the problems with Mycenaean gems (or, for that matter, with anything else) which beset modern specialists. Even after Egypt began to fix Mycenae’s age. Cecil Torr had no problem, since he completely distrusted the Egyptologists’ calculations,9 but he was practically alone in his skepticism. Problems began for Evans and for everyone else from the turn of the century to the present, such that, even today, authorities freely admit that “there will always be som [engraved gems] which defy attribution” to one side or the other of the 500-year gap which now disrupts the sequence;10 and debates continue between experts championing dates half a millennium apart for individual gems that they discover.11

Homer referred to Mycenae as “rich in gold,” an epithet which is very appropriate when we recall the wealth of the Shaft Graves. In dealing with their masks, hair rings, diadems, pins, garters, discs, the chariot-hunt ring, etc., we already noted a number of 400-700-year problems. Other pieces of gold jewelry from Mycenae and across the Aegean have caused still more bewilderment for the excavators. As was true of the gem-engravers, the first goldsmiths at Mycenae were probably trained by, or were themselves Minoan artisans, who had had a long history of craftsmanship on Crete. R. Higgins eloquently described “the superlative excellence of Mycenaean jewelry, in which the arts of filigree, granulation, inlay, enamelling, and repoussé work were carried to perfection. ”12 Much of that work, at least in its final stages, apparently emanated from the royal workshop on the citadel (Fig. 1, U).

Towards the end of the Mycenaean Period there comes “a real break in continuity,” with Greece too impoverished to create jewelry, except for rare pieces, which were “simple in extreme.”13 By ca. 850 B.C., more intricate works, again showing filigree and granulation, start to reappear. Since jewelers engage in the “most conservative of all crafts,” and there is a centuries-long break in the continuity of sophisticated jewelry in Greece, one could not assume that the Greeks began such delicate and intricate work again without the aid of non-Greek jewelers. Scholars therefore postulated that Mycenaean work which was exported to Cyprus and the Near East, had a profound impact on the artists there, who kept the tradition alive during the centuries when the Greeks themselves lost it, then re-introduced the old techniques and some jewelry types, which were popular in the bygone era.14

There is clear evidence of Near Eastern influence on Aegean jewelry of the ninth-seventh centuries,15 but any evidence that the Orient adopted and continued the Mycenaean tradition from the twelfth-ninth centuries is almost as poor as that assumed for pottery painting, metal work, ivory carving and gem engraving.16 In fact the earliest known sophisticated jewelry” of ca. 850 B.C. from Athens, showing both filigree and granulation, looks less Oriental than it does native Greek; and the granulation does not resemble the Levantine type as much as it does Mycenaean work,17 which flourished some 500-600 years earlier.18 One therefore had to postulate that while Mycenaean techniques nay have returned from the Near East, the Greek jewelers probably also rediscovered and copied centuries-old pieces of native Mycenaean craftsmanship.19

The problem of gold jewelry is not confined to the Greek mainland. On Crete in the eighth or seventh century,20 art historians are likewise “suddenly confronted with jewelry” of great sophistication. ” One piece from contemporary Ithaca to the northwest displayed a complex pattern of filigree and granulation, which “inevitably recalls” a twelfth-century Cretan ring. Similarly a seventh-century Cretan ring resembles yet another twelfth-century Minoan ring. Such a repetition of designs after so long a period “leads to the question whether there can be any connection between the two groups. . . Can this resemblance be due to chance?” Higgins, seeing such marked similarities between jewelry from Ithaca and Crete separated by 500 years, felt that they could not be fortuitous. He felt that there had to be a continuous tradition, but discounting the Near East as the intermediary, he suggested something which he hoped was not “too far-fetched”—that Crete itself kept the art alive during the Dark Age. Still, there were not only the problems of a 500-year difference in dates, and the sudden appearance of the later jewelry, but the additional one that for Crete, just as for Greece, “the record is a balnk” for some two hundred years after the creation of the twelfth-century rings21—which hardly helps to support the notion of continuity.

Similar problems have beset a cache of jewelry now in the British Museum, purportedly from Aegina, which many scholars have long viewed as Mycenaean in spirit but ninth-seventh-century in date, while others, also aware of their affinities to ninth-sixth century Italian, Aegean and Oriental material of the first millennium, have assigned the hoard to the period of and just prior to the Shaft Graves, ca. 1700-1500 B.C.22 A gold and enamel scepter from Cyprus has also become the subject of a debate between those who see its analogies to jewelry of ca. 1200 B.C., and those who see its resemblance to material of ca. 500 B.C.—again with a centuries-long gap separating the two groups, both for the jewelry technique and sophistication in general, and the manufacture of enamel in particular.23 The difficulties which have beset archaeologists and art historians over actual jewelry-have again provoked a 500-year “tug of war” between two schools of Homericists. Many commentators consider the Odyssey’s description of its hero’s golden brooch, depicting a hound attacking a fawn, to be a transplanted memory of Mycenaean jewelry design, while many others view it as an accurate reference to early seventh-century jewelry, and still others do not know which position to take.24


  1. Vermeule, (1972), pp. 95, 128-133, 206, 223-225, 231, 289-290, 300-301. 

  2. Evans, (1892-93), p. 222; cf. J. Boardman, Island Gems (London, 1963), p. 13. 

  3. Torr, (1896), p. 69. 

  4. Evans, (1900), p. 209; idem, (1935), pp. 539, 560-561. 

  5. R Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 345-346, 399; J. Boardman, (1963), pp. 94-95, 110; G. Richter, Engraved Gems of the Greeks and the Etruscans (New York, 1968), pp. 27-32. 

  6. Richter, (1969), pp. 245-246. 

  7. Boardman, (1963), p. 14. 

  8. Ibid, passim, esp. 13-14, 20-21, 32-34, 52, 58, 64, 73-74, 92-95, 110 and n. 1, 153; cf. idem, Archaic Greek Gems (London, 1968), p. 169; Richter, (1968), pp. 32, 38; idem,(1969), pp. 245-246; Snodgrass, (1971), p. 382; Evans (n. 4 above); Higgins, (1967), p. 190; De Vries, (1972), p.100; Benson, (1970), p. 121; R.M. Cook, Greek Art (New York, 1971), pp. 166-167; Robertson, (1975), pp. 147-361. 

  9. Torr, (1896), passim. 

  10. Boardman, (1963), p. 14. 

  11. For a recent case in point, see M. Vickers and J.M. Reynolds, “Cyrenaica, 1962-72,” Archaeological Reports 1971-2, p. 29. 

  12. R. Higgins, “Early Greek Jewelry,” BSA, 64 (1969), p. 143; cf. idem, (1961), pp. 69-70. 

  13. Ibid., (1969), pp. 143-144; cf. idem, (1961), p. 90. 

  14. Ibid., (1969), pp. 144-146; idem, (1961), pp. 70, 91, 95-96; Robertson, (1975), p. 32. 

  15. Ibid., (1969), pp. 145-146, 151; idem (1961), p. 95. 

  16. Ibid., (1969)., p. 146; cf. K. P. Maxwell-Kyslop. Western Asiatic Jewelry, ca. 3000-612 B.C. (London, 1971), pp. 224-231.

  17. E.L. Smithson, “The Tomb of a Rich Athenian Lady, ca. 850 B.C.,” Hesperia, 37 (1909), pp. 111-112. 

  18. Higgins, (1961), pp. 70, 76. 

  19. Ibid., pp. 95-96; Cf. idem, (1969), p. 145, and Robertson, (1975), p. 32. 

  20. J. Boardman (“The Khaniale Tekke Tombs, II,” BSA, 62 (1967), pp. 57-67) has recently re-dated much of the pertinent material from ca. 700 to ca. 800 B.C., Higgins (1969, p. 150), who originally accepted the later date, follows Boardman, while Snodgrass ((1971), pp. 267, 293 n. 49) remained skeptical.

  21. Higgins, ibid., pp. 149-150. 

  22. For the ninth-seventh centuries, see Evans, (1892-93), pp. 197-226; F. Poulsen, Der Orient und die frühgriechische Kunst (Berlin, 1912), p. 60; Lorimer, (1950), p. 71 and n. 1; C. Hopkins, “The Aegina Treasure,” AJA, 66 (1962), pp. 182-184. For dissatisfaction with such a late date for “Mycenaean” jewelry, see Myres, (1951), p. 70 and S. Marinatos, “Numerous Years of Joyful Life,” BSA, 46 (1951), p. 114 and n. 36. For its redating to ca. 1700-1500 B.C.., see R. Higgins, “The Aegina Treasure Reconsidered,” BSA, 52 (1957), pp. 42-57; idem, (1961), pp. 60, 64-67, 77, 82, 201 (but cf. p. 136 for the “striking likeness” to late seventh-century work); Demargne, (1964), p. 110. 

  23. For the twelfth century, see G.H. McFadden and E. Sjöqvist, “A Late Cypriot III Tomb from Kourion Kaloriziki No. 40,” AJA, 5S (1954), pp. 134, 141-142; Karageorghis, Mycenaean Art from Cyprus (Nicosia, 1908), p. 7; idem, (1970), pp. 73, 156; Higgins,(1961), p. 26; idem, (1967), p. 180; A. Pierides, Jewelry in the Cyprus Museum (Nicosia, 1971), p. 23 (but see p. 3). For ca. 600 B.C., See L. Buxton, B. Casson and J. Myres,” A Cloisonné Staff-head from Cyprus,” Man, 32 (1932), pp. 1-4; S. Casson, Ancient Cyprus (London, 1937), pp. 66, 157; G. Hill, A History of Cyprus I (Cambridge, 1940), p. 89, n. 6; P. Dikaios, A Guide to the Cyprus Museum (Nicosia, 1947), p. 107; idem, (1961 ed. of same book), p. 159. Both groups point to the similarity of the scepter’s scale pattern to contemporary pottery, although alternating rows of colored, scales are characteristic only of the latter pots. Those who consider the scepter to be early point to the eleventh-century date of the tomb which allegedly contained it, and to similarly made twelfth-century Gypriote rings (although they must assume that the enamelling was an invention of that period, was used on the rings and scepter, and then vanished till ca. 600 B.C.). Those who date it late doubt that the scepter came from that early tomb (whose cremation burial presents yet another 400-year problem - cf. McFadden [1954], pp. 133-134; Karsgeorghis, (1967b), p. 119; idem, (1969), p. 9 [by M. Wheeler]), and point to similarly-made seventh-century jewelry. Most of them wrote before the discovery of the analogous twelfth-century rings; Dikaios, however, did know of then in 1961, but followed the same reasoning as Higgins (n. 21 above), and Pieride (1971, p. 3), assuming some seventh-century jewelry reproduced twelfth-century patterns. 

  24. Mycenaean Age: A. J. Evans, “The Minoan and Mycenaean Element in Hellenic Life,” JHS, 22 (1912), pp. 292-293; idem, (1935), p. 524; H.P. and A. Wace, “Dress” in ”Wace-Stubbings, (1962), p. 500; Webster, (1964), p. 111; Hope Simpson-Lazenby, (1970), p. 2; Probably early seventh century Poulsen, (1912), p. 117; F. Studniczka, “Die Fibula des Odysseus” in E. Bathe, Homer 11.2 Odyssey (Leipzig, 1929), pp. 145-148; Nilsson, 1933, pp. 123, 25; Carpenter (1946), p. 55; Lorimer, (1950), pp. 511-515; Jacobsthal, (1956), p. 141; C.M. Bowra, “Composition” in Wace-Stubbings, (1962), p. 41; probably early seventh century, but skeptical about the whole issue: Kirk, (1964), p. 181; W.B. Stanford, The Odyssey of Homer II (New York, 1967), pp. 325-326; Bielefeld, (1968), p. 68.