Greece and its debt has been leading the news since last month’s elections but there has been less discussion of the debt Europe owes to Greece in terms of ideas, design and culture. Since the Bronze Age, Greece’s position between Europe, Africa and Asia together with its maritime heritage, has made it a centre of trade in ideas, goods and culture. A glance at the jewellery produced displays the sophistication of ancient Greek technology and society and the role ancient Greek communities played in adopting, developing and spreading advanced manufacturing techniques across the Mediterranean.
Metalworkers in Bronze Age Crete were producing extraordinarily detailed designs in gold, drawing in part on skills and techniques they had imported from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq).
Left: sheet gold pendants and ornaments of, from top, a bee; two lions; a ram, Crete 1700-1550BC, British Museum
When they conquered Crete, the Mycenaeans gained access to these skills and as their trading empire grew, developed new styles importing lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, ivory from North Africa and amber from the Celts in the north. Later generations traded in ideas, taking the alphabet from the Phoenicians, sculpture styles from Egypt and architecture from the Levant. Immigration also played its part: Phoenician craftsmen may well have driven significant advances in jewellery design in the post-Mycenaean period around the seventh century BC.
One of these advanced techniques was granulation: minute spherical grains of gold soldered to a background. Sumerian craftsmen were experimenting with the technique possibly as early as 2500BC, it spread to Crete, Mycenae, Athens and from there to Italy where the technique was developed by the Etruscans.
The ancients’ skills were so advanced that when Victorian jewellers tried to copy these designs they failed to reproduce the invisible soldering the ancient craftsmen had achieved. Only in the last century was the ancient method rediscovered.
Left: a pair of very modern-looking ear reels displaying granulation, gold, possibly from Rhodes, 420-400BC, British Museum
Is this a world that is dead and gone? Beautiful design is timeless and these traditions of artisanship and artistry have as much currency today as ever thanks to nineteenth century archaeology, a twentieth century business visionary and a host of twenty-first century artisans. More to come on this one.