Thursday, June 27, 2019

ADORN: Protective Roman Jewellery

Many people who lived in ancient times believed that when you looked at something your eyes would emit little particles of fire, (a bit like Superman with his laser vision.) That meant that an angry, jealous or envious person could actually hurt the person they were looking at. The anger or envy in their heart, transmitted by the beams, could make someone sick and even cause their death. This was called the ‘evil eye’ and children were considered particularly vulnerable. People also believed in a world full of gods, demigods and spirits, not all of them friendly. For this reason, people often wore magic amulets to avert the evil eye or distract demons. Borders, patches and knots in clothing often served this purpose. but it is most clearly seen in jewellery. 

At a new exhibition of jewellery dating from the Bronze Age to the 21st century, I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at some of the objects and spotted five different types of protective Roman jewellery. 

The first object I spotted is this marvellous little medallion showing the gorgon Medusa. Any face shown looking back will reflect back the ‘evil eye’ but Medusa is doubly powerful, her gaze can turn you to stone! In addition, the amulet is made of jet which was considered a special substance in Roman times because it warms quickly in your hand and if you rub it, then it can move things like dust and hair, seemingly by magic (but really by static electricity.) Jet was very popular with women, so I imagine the British wife of a retired Roman soldier wearing this around her neck for protection. If you look carefully you will see this Medusa also has snakes at her throat as well as in her hair, probably because demons and evil spirits dislike snakes. 

Speaking of snakes, these charming little bracelets are stylised serpents. They are made of copper-alloy and come from the later Roman period in Colchester. I think they are a bit sad because they are quite small and may have been worn by a little girl after she died. Perhaps she wore them when she was alive to scare away evil spirits. Snakes were associated with death and rebirth in the Roman world and so these might also protect her in the afterlife. We have found other serpent bracelets from the Roman world. Girls and women seemed to like snakes more than men, but that may just be because men didn’t wear bracelets. 

In Roman times baby boys were often given a gold bulla (the word means ‘ball’) to hang around their neck. This was a protective amulet and when the boy reached manhood he would offer it to a god in thanks for protecting him. I have never seen a girl wearing a bulla medallion, but these earrings would have provided twice the protection of a single bulla. They are exactly the same style as some found in Pompeii and might have come all the way from Italy. 

If boys often wore amulets that resembled the sun (gold balls), girls often wore amulets in silver that looked like a crescent moon. The goddess of the moon was Diana and the moon is often associated with females. The lunate or moon-shaped pendant can be seen on many of the so-called Fayum portraits, paintings of Romans living in Egypt in the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. The protective qualities of the silver moon on this bracelet are enhanced by the beads which are made of jet, amber and glass, all ‘magical’ substances. See the coin with the hole? That was another good-luck token. This was literally a ‘charm’ bracelet in that it has protective properties. 

You might have trouble finding these gemstones in the exhibition because they are TEENY tiny, about the size of your little fingernail! They are called intaglios which means they have something engraved into them. These stones would probably have been put in a ring and then used as the owner’s seal or signet. In Roman times a person’s ring was their ‘signature’! In the case of both these semi-precious blue-black gemstones we think the figures are satyrs. Satyrs were mythical creatures – half goat and half man – sacred to the god of wine, Dionysus. Also known as Bacchus, Dionysus was another god who could protect you, and after death he often led worthy souls down to the underworld. So, like all the other objects in my list they served an additional protective function in addition to their decorative use.

The exhibition is called ADORN but they could also have called it ADORN & PROTECT! It is on from 27 July 2019 until 16 February 2020 at Colchester Museums. The show is included in the price of entry to the Castle. For more information, go HERE.

Thanks to curators Glynn Davis and Pippa Pickles for showing me around! The superb photos were taken by Douglas Atfield and are all copyright Colchester Museums. I have used them with permission.