Early Romano-British Jewelry Part 1: Who Really Used Early Roman-British Jewelry and for What Purpose?

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The early ornaments of the greater part of Europe remained until late times entirely untouched by the culture prevalent in Italy and Greece. Though of great archaeological importance, as revealing successive stages of culture, they do not at the present demand very detailed consideration.

The decoration of the earliest jewelry of Europe— that of the Bronze Age, which dates roughly from about a thousand years before the Christian era—is by means of spiral and zigzag patterns. Ornaments have free endings, bent in spiral, snail-shell coils. The earliest were cast, though the hammer was used towards the close of the period ; solder was unknown, and rivets alone employed.

Gold and bronze were the only metals employed, the latter being sometimes gilt by means of thin gold plates, while amber is often found used as a jewel. Some idea of these early ornaments can be formed from the discoveries of objects worn by the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles. They are, however, not very numerous or important until after the Bronze Age, and until the Early Iron Age—known in England as the Late Celtic period—is reached.

The ornaments of the Britons—that is to say the Brythons or iron-using Celts—before they became subject to Rome are somewhat rare, for few objects of value were buried in graves. Such as have been found comprise bronze pins, brooches, torques, and bracelets; beads of amber, jet, bone, and glass, and bracelets also of jet.

Golden ornaments, like those laid bare by Schlie-mann at Mycenae, concealed either as votive offerings or for the sake of security, have been brought to light from time to time, occasionally in England and more frequently in Ireland.

Celtic literature and legend are full of references to these golden ornaments, and classical writers often make mention of them. The simplest types of gold ornaments discovered in England are rings formed of a rounded bar of equal thickness throughout, bent into a circular form, and the extremities left disunited. Their material is gold, .so pure and flexible that the rings can be easily opened to be linked into a chain or strung upon a thin gold wire.

They were very probably employed for barter, and are generally known as “ring-money.” Other rings, crescent-shaped, with ends tapering towards their extremities, may have served both as ornaments and substitutes for money. Others, again, are of gold wire shaped into a sort of rope, or else formed of a simple bar twisted in an ornamental manner.

It has been suggested that the simple penannular rings were nose-ornaments, and when linked or strung together were worn as necklaces ; also that the more decorative rings were earrings. But it is quite impossible to determine their actual use as personal ornaments.

Massive torques employed by the Celts for the purpose of adorning the neck are occasionally found of pure gold. They consist of a long piece of metal twisted and turned into the form of a circle, with its ends either terminating in a knob, or doubled back in the form of a short hook, or swelling out into cup like terminations.

Some are formed of a square bar of gold twisted spirally, others of a flat bar twisted in a lighter manner, or of more than one bar twisted together. Gold ornaments for the arms, known by the term armillce, are sometimes of the same thickness throughout. It is more usual to find them plain, though twisted work was also applied to them. The majority have dilated ends, or ends slightly concave. With others, again, these cavities assume the form of a cup so expanded as to present the appearance of a trumpet or the calyx of a large flower.

On ornaments somewhat resembling the latter the dilated extremities are flat plates, while the connecting part, diminutive in proportion to their exaggerated size, is striated longitudinally. These objects are usually described as dress-fasteners, but the exact purpose for which they were employed is still a matter of doubt.

Advanced skill in the art of enameling is one of the most notable features of the Late Celtic period, which itself extended from the prehistoric Age of Iron and over the period of the Roman occupation. This enamel, executed by the champleve process on copper and bronze, served for the decoration of massive bronze penannular bracelets, and for bronze pins with wheel-shaped heads.

In addition to brooches—all of the safety-pin type—of an immense variety of design, other primitive bronze ornaments, usually of the spiral form characteristic of Celtic work, include torques, armlets, and anklets. The torques are mostly penannular and have enlarged terminals ; the armlets are often complete rings.

Continued in Part 2

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