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2020-03-28 14:41:06   •   ID: 2168

The Significance of Early Ornaments

Figure 1
Figure 1: LSA Bead Strings from the Algerian Sahara. Ca 4000 k.a. calBC

Figure 2 : Ostrich eggshell beads Kenya; Ca 2000 k.a. calBC

Figure 3 and 4: sophisticated pendant made from shell, Jemdet-Nasr Period, Sumeria, ca 3rd Millennium BC.

Figure 5 and 6: Pair of gold earrings from Mesopotamia - 3,1-2,6 calBC.

This is a short account of early Ornaments between ca. 120-40 k.a. calBP (MSA- EUP). Later Periods may be described in a later post.

Figure 2
Jewelry consists of any ornament that is placed on the body for any symbolic reason.

Ornaments can be made of metals, shells, beads, textiles, clay, gems, stone, glass, or any components extracted from animals or plants.

They appeared in forms ranging from rings, armlets, bracelets, necklaces, and ornamental piercing to broaches, headdresses, and hair clips

They symbolize informations about individual and group identity of its wearer, her of his religious ideas, highlighting both significance and function within society that go far beyond trivial ornamentation- see 1556 .

They may have be used to adorn the body, to express wealth, as a method of intercultural exchange, to convey social or spiritual messages or as a tool of creativity.

Anyhow most of these assumtions are derived from ethnological reports and remain a little bit speculative.

Since their first appearance during the MSA and probably related to the spread of AMHs, ornaments have occurred in almost every culture across time and space. Even the Neanderthals, sometimes created such items, although in much lower density.

Archaeologists are mostly interested in examples of :

  • The social significance of ornaments- especially in the context of social Networks
  • Indications of long distance interregional contacts, sometimes over hundred of km during the the late MSA in Africa and Upper Paleolithic in Eurasia
  • craft specialization
Figure 3


Africa, and the Middle East: The earliest shells used as ornaments are from Africa and the Middle East.

It has shown that in Middle / MSA Paleolithic sites in both Africa and Eurasia, members of the genus Nassarius were the preferred mollusks selected for use as beads.

Species of this genus continued to be exploited as part of the shell bead corpus during the Upper Palaeolithic as well as in later periods (D.E. Bar-Josef Meyer 2015 ).

More than 40 perforated tick shell (Nassarius kraussianus) beads, dated by OSL to ca 75 k.a. BP (MIS4) were recovered from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave (South Africa; Cape Province).

Perforated shells, used as beads are also known from Sibudu Cave (KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa) from the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort layers of this site with 60-70 k.a. OSL ages.

A very promising East African in Kenya site has been published from in 2020 at the 3 m deep, well-dated,Panga ya Saidi sequence in eastern Kenya, encompassing 19 layers covering a time span of 78 kyr beginning in late Marine Isotope Stage 5, have yielded worked and incised bones, ostrich eggshell beads, beads made from seashells, worked and engraved ocher pieces, fragments of coral, and a belemnite fossil. Here, we provide, for the first time, a detailed analysis of this material (Francesco d'Errico et al. 2020).

Figure 4
Even older perforated marine gastropod shells were found in Israel from the Skhul site and maybe in Algeria from Oued Djebbana (C14>35 k.a.). Skhul is currently dated to 100-135 k.a. years ago, 25,000 years earlier than previous evidence for personal ornaments in South Africa.

In N-Africa, modified Shells have been recovered in stratigraphic context associated with Aterian / Mousterian lithic artifacts and were used as beads 82–85 k.a. ago at Taforalt, 82 k.a. ago at Ifri n'Ammar, and at 80–70 k.a. ago at Rhafas.

Interestingly, many of the African beads were covered with ochre while in use- maybe an indication for some ritual context.

The use of Ostrich eggshells ( see Figure 2) in South Africa is very old. The most prominent example for a non-utilitarian use comes from Diepkloof rock shelter (Western Cape) which yield in an MSA-context more than 400 Fragments of geometrical engraved ostrich eggshells, possible used as containers, which are dated to the Howiesons Poort (74-60 k.a. by TL at the site)..

Ostrich eggshell beads are among the oldest known ornaments made by our species and are often found in archaeological assemblages throughout Africa and Asia beginning during MIS3. They were produced by some communities until the 20 century (for example by the San).

Prehistoric eggshell beads date to as early as 40-30. k.a. years ago in eastern and southern Africa, as recently re-confirmed at two sites in Lesoto. The excavators suggest, that these beads were part of a long-distance insurance partnerships.

Anyhow, Ostrich eggshell beads from the site of Enkapune Ya Muto in Kenya, dated to about 40 k.a. ago remain the earliest known beads of this material type to be used as personal ornaments.

During the Early Upper Paleolithic: "The relatively large numbers of shells bead from the Northern Levant such as Ksar Akil and Üçağızlı (hundreds of shells) is due to the fact that these are multi-layered sites with repeated occupation that spanned over 10000 years whereas most sites in the southern Levant are either single or short occupation sites (especially in the western Negev, northern Sinai, the Lower Jordan valley and the Azraq basin in Jordan) or were used for shorter periods (e.g. Kebara Cave, Hayonim Cave).

The use of shell beads (and beads in general, such as those made of bone or ostrich egg shell) is considered to be a trait of modern human behavior as attested also by their presence in contexts of modern humans in the Middle Palaeolithic and Middle Stone Age. Whether the increase in shell numbers has to do with an increase in human population size or with other qualities inherent to Homo sapiens remains to be seen.

Figure 5
The species most commonly used include Nassarius gibbosulus, Columbella rustica, Mitrella scripta, Dentalium sp. Glycymeris insubrica (that was previously referred to as G. violacescens) and Cerastoderma glaucum.

The proportions between these species vary from one site to another, and a few other species are more rare. In a few isolated cases such as Kebara Cave and Meged Rockshelter, the use of the freshwater snail Theodoxus, pierced as a bead, is worth mentioning" (D.E. Bar-Josef Meyer).

An excellent paper about Beads during the Levantine (Epi- Paleolithic), which shows the stepwise evolution of stone beads, which are quasi absent in the proceeding Periods, can be found here:

https://www.academia.edu/3125726/Towards_a_Typology_of_Stone_Beads_in_the_Neolithic_Levant .

Another paper about visualizing the beaded headdresses, jewelry and clothing during the early Natufian in a burial context from el-Wad, Mallaha and Hayonim can be found here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324113479_Personal_Adornment_in_the_Epi-Paleolithic_of_the_Levant .

Figure 6
European and Asian Upper Paleolithic: First modified shell assemblages from the early upper Paleolithic at circum- Mediterranean sites (ca. 41 k.a. BP) such as from Riparo Mochi in Ligurian Italy, and Klissoura Cave 1 in southern Greece show similarities with the EUP of the Middle East as already described. They come from strata, ascribed to the Proto-Aurignacian and Uluzzian.

The Archaeological Record in Asia is promising, but still in its beginnings. For example, in the Altai, perforated animal teeth have been reported from the Denisova cave site ca 70 k.a. ka BP) and cultural sediments at Kara-Bom site yielded some perforated animal teeth and bone slices (43±1,6 k.a. CalBP).