Digging up gold

When Penn archaeologists opened Tomb 6A in Lapithos, Cyprus in 1931, they discovered gold ornaments almost immediately. According to Virginia Grace, who wrote about the tomb and its contents in the American Journal of Archaeology nine years later (vol. 44 no.1), the gold objects first drew the excavators’ attention because “one of them caught the candle-light of the man arranging for the first photographs” (Grace, 17). Although some of these finds were kept at the Cyprus Museum, the rest of the jewelry from this tomb (Early Cypriot II era or 2100-2000/1950 B.C.) and successive tombs was brought to the Penn Museum and remains here today.

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32-27-385. Fragments of a gold ornament in the shape of a leaf from Tomb 6A.

The few precious metals are kept in a vault in Museum storage, and are rarely removed. Having the chance to look at them up close, and photograph them is a rare opportunity. They were especially awe-inspiring to view since, although extremely delicate, they are in good condition (such is the amazing lasting quality of gold). The tiny fragments pictured above form a leaf, and have incised lines and dot repoussé delineating the outline and stem that runs through the center. This kind of decoration would have been executed from the back.

Diagram of the gold leaf fragments drawn by Tatiana Proskouriokoff (Grace, Pl. XII).

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32-27-385 gold leaf fragments, back.

Repoussé leaves were a common motif in Minoan tombs from Mochlos, and this leaf is one of the finds that suggest some kind of Minoan influence in Cyprus during this period. Other examples of Minoan gold leaves can be seen in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Last week I had the chance to show these images to an expert in ancient Minoan jewelry crafting techniques, Jane Hickman, whose name you may recognize because she works here at the Museum as Editor of Expedition magazine.  She had included some objects from Lapithos in her dissertation Gold Before the Palaces: Crafting Jewelry and Social Identity in Minoan Crete and understands a good deal about ancient jewelry making. In her dissertation, she noted a pair of antithetical gold hair rings or earrings found in Tomb 6A near the skull of a woman, which were probably once worn on each side of the face.  These gold pieces appear to have been unique in design to Cyprus. They were kept at the Cyprus Museum.

gold hair rings

Gold hair rings or earrings and their diagram (Grace, Pl. XII)

The more intricate gold pieces from Lapithos are later in date, belonging to the Iron Age, and Jane explained some of the common jewelry-making techniques likely used in their production. For example, this beautiful earring (below) consists of a hemisphere boss at the center that would have been made from a sheet formed over wood or metal. Around the top appears to be a twisted wire, and the larger balls at the bottom likely consist of two bosses bonded together.

32-27-578. Gold earring, front.

32-27-578. Gold earring, front.

Joining in antiquity could have been performed using soldering (the melting of a filler metal at a lower meting point than the pieces being joined), or a technique known as copper diffusion bonding.  Diffusion bonding was developed in ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Etruscan and Minoan civilizations, but was lost after the Roman Era, only to be “rediscovered” in more modern times. It involves mixing a copper compound such as copper hydroxide with glue and water, which allows tiny granules or wires to be set in place with a fine-tipped brush and then placed in a charcoal fire to alloy the copper and gold. The granules, such as the tiny spheres at the bottom of the earring, are made by cutting wire into equally sized pieces, and setting them on a bed of charcoal and heating them. When the wire segments become hot enough, they melt into spheres, which were then rinsed and sorted by size. Watch how this process works with a jeweler named Fred Zweig here.

32-27-578. Gold earring, back.

32-27-578. Gold earring, back.

How segments were formed and attached can be better viewed from the back (pictured above). At the back you can also see that the very tip of the earring wire that would have gone through the ear has a small lip. It was likely fired and rounded so that it could pass through the ear smoothly. The granulation technique was also used on this pair of earrings, pictured below.

32-27-1203. Gold earrings from Lapithos.

32-27-1203A and B. Gold earrings from Lapithos.

You may notice that the color of these earrings is significantly lighter than the previous objects. Gold would not have been pure, and the color can indicate varying levels of copper or silver that exist in the metal. The lighter colored earrings above are likely to contain more silver, and the redder color of the other objects likely indicate more copper. You may also notice that the granules on 32-27-1203 are varying sizes, so slightly less care was taken with them when they were sorted, possibly indicating a smaller workshop. I love this pair of earrings because although so old, there is something highly modern and contemporary about their design, simultaneously simple yet delicate and elegant.

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting an up-close look at these beautiful pieces as much as I have.

My work on the Lapithos collection is the focus of a Kress Fellowship. This Fellowship is supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation

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