Trinkets and the tales they tell

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Throughout the ages, jewelry and trinkets have always been part of civilizations, they translated people’s preferences and lifestyle, and mirrored their talent, development and prosperity.  By studying ancient trinkets and jewelry, one can learn about civilizations in a more personal level, their faiths, how they dressed, what influenced them and who they traded with.

In a lecture presented as part of the 23rd Annual Cultural Season of Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah, Dr Laila Aqeel stated that pre-Islamic Yemeni trinkets and jewelry can be dated back to the 6th Century BC, and that their design mainly revolved around their religious beliefs, making it a very intimate part of their daily lives.

Dr Laila Aqeel received her PhD in Arts and Antiquities from the University of Sornbonne in Paris and has conducted extensive research and documentation of old Yemeni seals. In 2007, Dr Laila documented every antique trinket and jewelry available in Yemeni museums and has written papers in this regard, while contributing to publications in both Yemen and France.

During her lecture held at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre, Dr Laila Aqeel noted that the ancient Yemeni civilization stands out from most ancient civilizations. It did not enjoy natural resources like civilizations that have risen around the Nile or Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Therefore they built complex dam systems to supply the population with water. In addition, according to experts in epigraphy, ancient Yemen is rich with the written word. They were a civilization that loved writing, which is what gave birth to their sophisticated structure of alphabets.

Most of what made up the civilization in ancient Yemen has already been discovered and studied but little is known about the people then. What were they like? How did they live their daily lives? This is what Dr Laila wanted to learn, and this is why she chose this field, as jewelry and trinkets to this day, speak to us about the individual wearing them.

Dr Laila pointed out that this field does not come without complications. For example, throughout the ages, gold has always been in high demand. Therefore the number of ancient trinkets and jewelry that are currently being preserved does not accurately translate its abundance in then.

Moreover, trinkets and jewelry reflect wealth. Therefore it has always been subjected to a lot of movement, whether it be trade or theft, which renders those existing today, unknown in terms of origin. All that is known is that it is ancient Yemeni, but nothing more.

For this reason, studies of ancient Yemeni trinkets and jewelry have never been conducted before and most at this point are studies comparing them to other trinkets and jewelry from other civilizations that have been accurately dated and their origin pinpointed.

Throughout her studies, Dr Laila discovered that most, if not all the trinkets and jewelry that has been proven to have be made in ancient Yemen, were amulets of religious beliefs. They were amulets that were made and worn to please certain gods for numerous reasons like protection, fertility or property.

The most common amulets found were shaped like the crescent moon or the sun, while others were shaped like bull heads.

When it comes to crescent amulets, they are believed to have been commonly worn by children and women, as some of these amulets were found on the laps of buried children in archeological sites. They are also commonly engraved with a phrase meaning “protect,” or another that means “magic power,” followed by the name of the god to whom they pray and then the owners name.  These engravings make the amulet very personal, a feature that cannot be found in trinkets and jewelry from other civilizations asserted Dr Laila.

The majority of ancient Yemeni amulets were made out of gold, most likely due to its high value. But some researchers believe that it might have stemmed from their religious belief that gold is the representation of their sun god. Other amulets were made of bronze and stone, like those that were made to take the shape of a bull’s head and vines, which honors the god “almaqah.”

The manufacturing of ancient Yemeni jewelry and trinkets were not immune to influences from other cultures as the later jewelry that was made in Yemen, show evidence of Mesopotamian influences. It most likely leaked into ancient Yemeni culture due to trade, as Yemen exported large quantities of incense to the rest of the ancient world.

Dr Laila said that for ancient Yemeni jewelers to have taken influence from Mesopotamia is not surprising, as it is believed that the very first jewelry had been manufactured there, with some being found today that dates back to the 4th century BC.

The major change in ancient Yemeni jewelry happened during the Hellenistic period, as methods used have developed and cultures have mixed, bringing the manufacturing of jewelry and trinkets to another level, laying the foundation of what we have today.

Jewelry has always been a part of humanity. Its existence has been stable alongside the development of human kind ever since its inception in ancient Mesopotamia. When we talk about it nowadays, the majority believes that jewelry and trinkets came from the west, ancient Greece in particular, but Dr Laila Aqeel said “its origins is from the East one hundred percent.”

By Ahmed Al-Naqeeb – Arab Times Staff



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