levantine jewellery history

Ancient Palestinian jewellery

What is the history of traditional jewellery in North Africa and the Middle East? Historical context and cultural heritage have left their traces in the traditional jewellery worn in countries as we know them today, and so this blog series takes us back to the distant past. In this blog, I will look at jewellery history in Palestine: the region of Historic Palestine and Greater Syria, which since 1948 includes Israel.  What is the history of Palestinian jewellery in very broad strokes?

Ancient trade and historic Palestine

Historic Palestine is situated on the shores of the Mediterranean. Here, trade routes coming over land from the Arab Peninsula and Central Asia connected with those coming from Egypt. The sea routes over the Mediterranean also included Palestinian ports. As in most of the eastern Mediterranean, influences from Western Asia met directly with southern European and northern African cultures, resulting in a pluriform world.

Tell el-Ajjul, near the modern city of Gaza, was one of the principal cities in the southern Levant as it was strategically located on the main route through Sinai into Egypt, near the Mediterranean coast as well as on an intersection with trade routes coming from Syria.

Bronze Age Palestine: gold jewellery and glass beads

Tell el-Ajjul for example was a place where gold jewellery was produced in the late Bronze Age. [1] Here, three hoards were found, which reflect these international relations in their variety of styles. Some of the jewellery items are clearly Egyptian, such as rings with scarabs. Others are based on more local Canaanite traditions, such as the triangular pendant with a goddess, of which parallels have been found in Syria as well as on the Uluburun shipwreck. Several earrings and a crescent pendant are reminiscent of jewellery still worn today.

Jewellery based on Egyptian examples, such as scarabs and other Egyptian amulets is found widely in Palestine from ca 1500 BCE onwards: this is the timeframe in which the pharaohs extended their empire into the Levant.

In Bisan, also known as Beit She’an, over 1,500 glass and faience beads were excavated within a temple site. [2] While the majority of the glass and faience beads were of Egyptian production methods and style, they were strung together with beads and ornaments that referred to Canaanite gods and goddesses.

Silver jewellery hoards in historic Palestine

Besides gold jewellery and glass beads, several hoards of silver have been found throughout Palestine as well. [3] These date from the 12th century BCE to the 6th century BCE and tell us a great deal about trade and contacts. The origin of the silver itself in these hoards has been analyzed, and this showed two notable facts. [4]

First, the silver was melted down and reworked several times. This is a custom that is widespread throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa, as precious metals were valuable and reused when needed.

Second, the origins of the silver found in these hoards are Anatolia, the Aegean and, perhaps more surprising, the western Mediterranean – the Iberian Peninsula, or Sardinia. This points to a trade contact from west to east and illustrates the wide reach of trade networks in the late Bronze and early Iron Age.

Glass jewellery production in Hebron and the coastal regions

Palestine was a major region of glass production during the first millennium CE.[5] Here, glass finger rings, beads, pendants and bracelets were created. Pilgrim souvenirs made of glass catered to Christian worshippers [6].

Glass jewellery continued to be created during the Middle Ages, when for example the use of glass bracelets increased exponentially. Fragments of bracelets are regularly found at excavation sites, but are not often well understood. Their method of production, just like beads, did not change significantly for a long time. This makes them difficult to date: it is the excavation stratigraphy that provides a date for the bracelet fragments. [7]

One of the locations that was famous for its glass production until the last century was Hebron. Here, the glass industry dates back at least two millennia. Glass beads have been produced here as well, at least since the Middle Ages, and a 1799 travel account mentions the coarse glass beads that were created in Hebron and traded to East Africa. Glass bracelets made in Hebron were considered an indispensable part of a bride’s dowry in 1920s southern Palestine.⁠ [8]

This blog will continue with the traditional silver jewellery of Palestine: Bethlehem.

This is an updated, adapted and expanded version of an earlier blog post I wrote for the Zay Initiative.

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[1] McGovern, E. 1980. Ornamental and Amuletic Jewelry Pendants of Late Bronze Age Palestine. An Archaeological Study. PhD-thesis, University of Pennsylvania

[2] McGovern, E., S.J. Stuart & C.P. Swann. The Late Bronze Egyptian Garrison at Beth Shan: Glass and Faience Production and Importation in the Late New Kingdom, in: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1993-05-01, Vol.290 (290/291), p.1-27

[3] Taha, H., A. Pol & G. Van der Kooij 2006. A Hoard of Silver Coins at Qabatiya, Palestine. Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Ramallah

[4] Wood, J., I. Montero-Ruiz & M. Martinón-Torres. From Iberia to the Southern Levant: the Movement of Silver Across the Mediterranean in the Early Iron Age, in: Journal of World Prehistory (2019) 32, p. 1-31

[5] Freestone, I. C. Glass Production in the First Millennium CE; A Compositional Perspective, in: Klimscha, F. et al (eds) 2021. From Artificial Stone to Translucent Mass-Product. Berlin Studies of the Ancient World, 67, p. 245-246

[6] Schwarzer, H. & T. Rehren. Glass Finds From Pergamon. A Report on the Results of Recent Archaeologic and Archaeometric Research, in: Klimscha, F. et al (eds) 2021. From Artificial Stone to Translucent Mass-Product. Berlin Studies of the Ancient World, 67, p. 181

[7] See for a short excursion into glass bracelets from Sinai for example Shindo, Y. 2001. The classification and chronology of Islamic glass bracelets from al-Tur, Sinai, in: Senri Ethnological Studies vol. 55, pp. 73-100

[8] Weir, S. 1989. Palestinian Costume. The Trustees of the British Museum, London

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.