In this blog series on jewellery, we are focusing on the jewellery traditions of various countries in North Africa and South-West Asia. These jewellery traditions go further back in history than the geographical borders we know today, and of course, one country may be home to several cultural traditions. Both the historical context and the cultural heritage of a variety of peoples are visible in the jewellery worn, and we hope to be introducing this wider scope of adornment and dress to you. In this post, we are looking at the long history of jewellery in Jordan.
Beads and survival
Already in prehistoric times, beads were considered prestige goods. Stone beads in particular were much coveted, as these were harder to create than, for example, beads of bone or shell. In eastern Jordan’s Wadi Jilat traces of early bead production and craftsmanship have been found. Here, stone beads have been produced from the Neolithic onwards: earlier periods seem to have created beads only of softer materials. Research on several sites in Wadi Jilat has shown that beads were not only produced for local use but very likely also for trade and export. By analysing the type of material used, a greenish stone called ‘Dabba marble’, as well as the techniques, a form of regional specialisation becomes visible. This local speciality was then traded elsewhere, and establishing where these beads turn up allows us to see trade networks emerge. Taking these networks one step further, the beads of Wadi Jilat may also reflect the forming of alliances. After all, the Neolithic communities in Wadi Jilat were entirely dependent on their crops – should a harvest fail, asking other villages and the nomadic communities for help in exchange for beads strengthened these ties considerably.
The Father of Beads
Near the Jordan river, in the central Jordan Valley, lies a site called Tell Abu Kharaz: the site of the ‘Father of Beads’. This town has its origins in the early Bronze Age, around 3,100 BCE, and flourished and traded with Mesopotamia and Anatolia as well as with Egypt and Greece until well into the Iron Age. It was eventually destroyed in 700 BCE by the Assyrians. During the nearly four millennia of habitation, beads were traded here and gave the site its modern nickname. Cylinder seals occurred in both the earliest occupation from the site to the neo-Assyrians, but glass beads and Egyptian scarabs showcase the wide networks of the communities living here as well.
Jordan is home to the capital of the Nabateans: Petra. The Nabatean kingdom stretched from Wadi Araba to the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia. Its capital was a rich and wealthy city according to contemporary sources, which is reflected in its jewellery. Here, not only actual jewellery but also depictions of jewellery on statues, reliefs and paintings, help to further our understanding of Nabatean jewellery. From these sources, it appears that gold jewellery was worn in abundance in the form of head ornaments, earrings, nose rings, necklaces, clothing fasteners (called fibulas), belts, rings, bracelets, and anklets. Surviving texts share the names of goldsmiths producing these and contemporary Roman authors mention that the Nabateans were renowned silver- and goldsmiths. Some of these pieces of jewellery share characteristics with jewellery as it is worn in traditional silver jewellery, such as the crescent moon and the ending of bracelets in animal heads.
From late Antiquity into early Islamic
In the first centuries CE, the Roman and later Byzantine empires met violently with the Persian Sassanids on more than one occasion. A jewellery hoard, found at al-Humayma in southern Jordan, tells us more about shifting power balances in the region. The hoard contained several gold coins as well as a pair of gold and pearl earrings. The coins are both imitation Roman and Sassanid and show that the owner of these items traded with both. The earrings themselves are also reflecting a hybrid world: pearls from the Gulf were favoured all over the known world. Several finds related to personal adornment date from around the 6th and 7th centuries, the Late Byzantine and Early Islamic period. Glass finds from Umm al-Jimal, near the border with Syria, contain many cosmetic jars and perfume bottles. Research has shown that these were also made of recycled glass, while glass was produced in abundance in Palestine, perhaps this was not available in northern Jordan at that time.
A magic scroll from Jerash
Sometime during the 8th century, a person living in Jerash in the northwest of Jordan had a problem that required help from a ritual specialist. After consultation, it was decided that a thin sheet of silver, inscribed with powerful words, would be the best solution. The amulet was created, folded twice and then tightly rolled so that it could be inserted in a lead container. This container in turn was then sewn into fabric and worn by the owner until it was lost at some point. It was found still in its container. It has been digitally unfolded, but the 17 lines of writing cannot be read – they are in pseudo-Arabic, added upon with magical signs. This practice of writing amulets on silver, gold or lead is a continuation of the same practice in Antiquity: here, personal adornment tells us about the continuation of certain habits in times of religious change. Wearing inscribed amulets was already a very old practice, but including pseudo-Arabic script shows that Arabic was gaining importance as a known powerful script.
Silver jewellery from Jordan
The traditional jewellery of Jordan continues to reflect this wide cultural orientation. Both the Bedouin and sedentary peoples wear silver jewellery in abundance. In the northern region of Irbid, the silver jewellery was created by silversmiths from Damascus, Nablus, and Nazareth, reflecting the styles of Palestine and Syria. In as-Salt, craftsmen from Nablus has settled to create the niello jewellery, in high demand in the area. This use of niello reflects the influences of Armenian and Circassian craftsmen: many bracelets and amulet pendants are finely decorated in this technique. The silversmiths in Kerak on the other hand were originally from the Hejaz, alongside Armenian jewellers, and influences from Saudi Arabia are visible here as well as in the more southern region of Ma’an. As in many parts of the former Ottoman empire, the choker-style necklace known as kirdan is also worn in Jordan. In the west, the jewellery shares many similarities with the jewellery of Palestine, as the Bedouin tribes wandered in a wide area. Characteristic for the centre of Jordan is the long silver chains that were worn over one shoulder across the chest to the opposite hip. These are called jinad and carried coins as well as amulets. Necklaces strung with Coral beads and silver amulet pendants are worn in a wide area, and sometimes it is impossible to determine whether such a necklace is from Jordan, Palestine, Northwest Saudi Arabia, or Sinai. Jewellery and dress from Jordan are preserved and researched in the Tiraz Center in Amman, where this rich and varied heritage is safeguarded for future generations.
This blogpost is based on
- Al-Bashaireh, K. et al. 2016. Composition of Byzantine glasses from Umm el-Jimal, northeast Jordan: Insights into glass origins and recycling, in: Journal of Cultural Heritage 21, pp. 809-818
- Almasri, E., Alawneh, F. and F. Balaawi 2012. Nabatean Jewellery and Accessories, ResearchGate
- Barfod, G.H. et al. 2015. Revealing text in a complexly rolled silver scroll from Jerash with computed tomography and advanced imaging software. www.nature.com/scientificreporrts
- Baum, D. et al. 2021. Revisiting the Jerash Silver Scroll: A new visual data analysis approach, in: Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, Vol. 21
- Bruijn, E. de and J. Dudley 1995. The Humeima Hoard: Byzantine and Sassanian Coins and Jewelry from southern Jordan, in: American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 99 No. 4, pp. 683-697
- Fisher, P. 2008. Tell Abu Kharaz. A Bead in the Jordan Valley, in: Near Eastern Archaeology Vol 71 no 4
- Møller Larsen, J. et al. 2016. An Ummayad period magical amulet from a domestic context in Jerash, Jordan, in: Syria 93, pp. 369-386
- Volger, G. (red) 1987. Pracht und Geheimnis. Kleidung und Schmuck aus Palastina und Jordanien, Rautenstrauch–Joest-Museum, Koln
- Wright, K. & A. Garrard 2002. Social identities and the expansion of stone bead-making in Neolithic Western Asia: new evidence from Jordan, in: Antiquity 77 (296), pp. 267-284
- Wright, K. I et al. 2008. Stone Bead Technologies and Early Craft Specialization: insights from Two Neolithic Sites in Eastern Jordan, in: Levant Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 131-165