Ancient Jewellery

The 7000 Year Old Necklace

I was reading 7000 Years of Jewellery History by Hugh Tait last night, and I was struck by a mention in the first paragraphs about an incredibly old necklace currently residing in the British Museum. It wasn’t so much the necklace itself that interested me –  though it is of course a fascinating piece – but more its significance in cataloging and understanding the human desire to use rare and exotic materials for adornment.

7000 year old necklace discovered at Arpachiyah.
Source British Museum

The necklace was excavated at Arpachiya (near Mosul in modern day Iraq) in the 1930s by British archaeologist Max Mallowan. It was discovered on the site of a small 6000-5000 BC artisan village in an area known as the ‘Burnt House’. Alongside it were discovered highly decorated ceramics, stamp seals, stone and obsidian vessels, figurines and a considerable amount of flint and obsidian tools. The necklace itself is made from six lozenge shaped obsidian beads, another bead fashioned from dark clay, 16 cowrie shells and one label shaped dark grey limestone pendant.

Obsidian and cowrie shell necklace from the Halaf Period.
Source British Museum

The first thing to mention is that obsidian – a natural translucent black volcanic glass – was a rare raw material in 6000-5000 BC. It was primarily used alongside flint for making sharp blades and tools, but its aesthetic qualities and/or value tended it towards jewellery too. Obsidian was not found locally to Arpachiyah, and analysis of the obsidian in this necklace places its locality (where it was mined/discovered) just north of Lake Van in Turkey in an area called Nemrut Dağ, a distance in excess of 400 km from Arpachiyah. By modern day standards, not far at all. But in neolithic times, a long way indeed!

Map showing Arpachiyah and various obsidian sources in modern daye Turkey.
Map showing the location of Arpachiyah in relation to obsidian sources (triangles). Source S. Campbell via

The cowrie shells – which had their backs removed and showed evidence of being filled with red clay – would have come even further according to Tait, most likely the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea. To the closest shores, that’s anywhere from 1000-1500 km and a vast distance to the people of the time. As you can imagine, the shells would have been quite the novelty in landlocked Arpachiya.

A rough look at the distance the cowrie shells would have been transported to Arpachiya. Source: Google Maps.

Another interesting feature on the 7000 year old necklace is the bead fashioned from clay to imitate obsidian. Maybe the original piece of obsidian was lost, or maybe there simply weren’t enough pieces for the design in the first place. Where today we imitate precious stones using plastic and glass and even grow our own gemstones in labs, it seems that imitating scarce and valuable natural stones was just as important in the ancient world.

The 7000 Year Old Necklace
A clay bead to imitate obsidian. Source British Museum

When we think of important old jewellery, our mind tends towards the heavily bejeweled pieces of kings and queens. And while these gem heavy pieces undoubtedly reinforce jewellery’s long link to wealth and status, very ancient jewellery like this tells us so much more. The 7000 year old necklace shows us that the human desire to covet rare and exotic materials is many thousands of years old. Humans have, throughout the ages and throughout unconnected civilisations, consistently seen beauty and value in certain materials (gold being a good example) and worn them as personal adornment. And while we can’t be certain exactly when humans started fashioning these materials into jewellery, we can be certain that our need to do so is a profound one.

References & Credits

7000 Years of Jewellery History by Hugh Tait
The British Museum, number 127814
Producing adornment: Evidence of different levels of expertise in the production of obsidian items of adornment at two late Neolithic communities in northern Mesopotamia, Elizabeth Healey & Stuart Campbell

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