Greco-Roman Gold Earrings with Garnet African Heads, 2nd Century BC-1st Century AD
The jewelry of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods is among the
finest of the ancient world, unsurpassed in richness of subject matter
and composition, luxurious media and exquisite attention to detail.
This type of African head pendant originates from Greece, from the
third to second century BC. Images of Ethiopians and Nubians were
popular in Egyptian art but were relatively rare in the Mediterranean
world until the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the late
fourth century BC suddenly exposed the Greeks to the peoples of the
African continent. As part of this new and intriguing Nilotic landscape,
images of Africans evoked the distant and exotic cultures at the edge
of the known world. The popularity of Nilotic themes coupled with a
Greek tradition in jewelry of elaborate figural pendants (for example,
beads, acorns, vessels, and female heads) led to the depiction of
Nubians and Ethiopians as part of the popular repertory of wearable art.
Initially, heads were fashioned wholly in gold, but by the late third
and early second century, semi-precious stones were incorporated into
the composition, as here. Materials rich and warm in color, such as
carnelian, sardonyx, amber, and garnet, were all transformed into
African figures, not only rendering each piece more elaborate, but also
imbuing them with a striking liveliness and depth of character.
The use of gemstones set into gold jewelry remained a popular
practice in the early Roman period; precious stones were said to have
held magical properties and were considered markers of high social
status. Pendants and earrings in the form of African heads seem to have
been particularly popular in Italy, with examples known from Bari and
A pair of gold earrings with the head of an African in garnet is in the
collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (inv. no. 57.1562-3,
circa third century BC), and a similar pair from Cyme, Turkey, is in the
British Museum, London (inv. no. 1877,0910.28, circa fourth to third
century BC). However, these examples are earlier, and lack the clarity
of form and sharpness of carving evident in the present pair.