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Jewelry: A Walk Through Time

Ancient shell beads used as jewelry

Ancient shell beads used as jewelry found in Morroco Cave

The term jewelry came into the English language in the mid-thirteenth century; it is derived from the French word joule, which in turn came from the Latin word jocale; the term roughly translates to as plaything.

Curiously, what began as a mere plaything became an important part of every society, and through all and every culture, in mankind’s history. The use of jewelry is one of the few practices that has remained to endure time and change-whether social, cultural or political.

As jewelry use surpassed its primordial function as playthings to our prehistoric man, it then evolved into a symbolic accent to denote an individual’s social and religious rank. Moreover, gemstones in particular, were the popular jewelry of choice to ward off evil spirits, and were preferred by the more superstitious culture. Much later, jewelries were incorporated into functional and practical uses in clothes as buttons and accessories. Gold, on the other hand, served as a currency to trade or buy other goods.

Most of us living today may not know it, but wearing jewelry dates back to as far as 85,000 years ago. Based on the most recent archeological find at Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt in Eastern Morocco, shell beads coated with red ochre are believed to be the oldest form of ornament or jewelry used in prehistoric time. In addition, early ancestors of modern jewelry were made, crudely and simply, from various natural materials like beets, stones, teeth and shell beads, strung together to form a necklace, anklet, or armlet. Among these ancient forms, it was the shell beads that had amazingly survived time, particularly of the genus Nassarius, the same kind of shell beads previously found in the caves of Israel and Algeria.

There are no existing data that points to when exactly the practice of burying jewelry with its owner began. Most discoveries of these ancient pieces were found in tombs- from the Egyptians to Roman burial chambers; from the caves of prehistoric man to the Incas and Mayans, these jewelries were buried together with the owners. Historians can only assume that the owner may be a high-ranking spiritual or tribe leader to afford to be buried with their possessions.  These days, jewelry is passed on to the next generation of family members.

Archeologists have acknowledged that there is no conclusive evidence the latest find is the oldest they will ever find. Like the previous discoveries, it is simply a matter of time before another string of shell beads will turn up. As to when, only luck knows!

(End of the First in a Three-Part Series)

Next week: A look into the use of jewelry in the Middle Ages-Renaissance periods.

Photograph courtesy Ian Cartwright, Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University

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