Bracelets are for the difficult times : Jewellery and economy. By Sigrid Van Roode

Bracelets are for the difficult times : Jewellery and economy. By Sigrid Van Roode

The Middle East and North Africa.

Some of the oldest civilizations in the world originated along the fertile banks of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have been cultural melting pots ever since. The trade routes adopted by the region’s nomads linked colourful cultures and time-long traditions like so many beads on a string. And indeed it is in the region’s jewellery that its many-layered history of tribes and empires, nomads and villagers is perhaps best seen. From an archaeological point of view,decorative details and motifs can be traced back centuries,

sometime seven millennia.

The traditional silver jewellery of the region combines a variety of aspects of desert life. As the unalienable property of a woman, it has practical,

economic value; it serves as a social indicator and reveals where the wearer comes from, how rich she is and her status as a wife and mother.

Perhaps more importantly it is frequently worn as a powerful amulet. Jewellery plays a subtle role in everyday society as communicator, messenger and bank account. The different functions fulfilled by jewellery are rooted deep within society, so changes within that society inevitably impact its

jewellery. Now that traditional societies are changing fast, what does the future hold for the traditional silver jewellery of the Middle East and North Africa, jewellery that has remained unchanged for centuries?

The Jewellery a woman receives when she marries is hers to do with as she pleases and is often regarded as her own economic means. An old

Arabic saying underlines this idea : ‘el-hadayad li’l wa’t el-shadayad@ ( gifts [of jewellery] are for the difficult times). If a family needs money, a

woman can decide to sell some of her jewellery or parts of it. Indeed, a woman’s silver jewellery often represents the family’s savings account. The real capital of the household however cosists of cattle and, in the case of sedimentary groups, land.

Jewellery forms an additional investment and was used as currency avant la lettre, as indicated by a jewellery find at Tel Mique-Ekron in Israel

which was inhabited in the seventh century BC. Two of the three hoards of silver jewellery consisted of small pieces that were broken or worn. As

such they were unlikely to comprise the stock of a silversmith, or a woman’s jewellery collection. It has been assumed that this hoard was

‘small

change’, used as some sort of money.

A similar hoard, from around 1300 BC was found in Tell el-Amarana in Egypt. It consists of irregular gold bars, silver pieces and rings, as well as a

silver figurine of a Hittite god. The silver items alone would have been enough to buy some ten cows or oxen. At this time the value of goods was often expressed  in units of another material, such as a weight class called deben or specific silver items called shaty. These silver standards are probably rings, worn as pendants. The word for silver in ancient Egypt, hedj,was actually used to indicate an abstract connotation that comes close to our word’ money’ and this monetary use for jewellery is still found among the Tuareg, where ring-shaped pendants, called zinder are used today as jewellery and currency alike. The use of coins as currency, with a set value and a standard silver content, is relatively recent. Rulers have issued coins since the beginning of classical antiquity, but these were of varying quality, size and value. Jewellery as a means of payment has a very long history, deeply rooted in the civilizations of the Middle East, and is still closely connected to the economy today.

This book, Desert Silver, explores the social, economic and religious background of this jewellery.

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