Greek Gold Olive Wreath, 4th Century BC

There are signs that this wreath was damaged in a fire which suggests that that it was used as a funerary wreath and became scorched during the burning of a funeral pyre.

A wreath made from wild olive branches, also known as kotinos, was the prize for the winner at the ancient Olympic Games. According to Pausanias, the sacred olive tree at Olympia, from which the champion’s wreaths were made, came from the land of the Hyporboreans. It was brought to Olympia by Herakles and planted near the temple dedicated to his father, Zeus, in his honor. Legend says that it was Iphitos who first used a crown of wild olive leaves from sacred tree, called the kallistephanos, to crown victors at the Olympic games.

Olive wreaths were also made for the champions of the Panathenaic Games in Athens. Mythology says that these wreaths were made from the sacred olive tree that grew from where Athena struck her spear on the ground at the Acropolis. For the ancient Greeks, the olive tree was a symbol of peace, wisdom and triumph.

Gold wreaths were made imitating  their natural counterparts in various forms, including oak, olive, ivy, vine, laurel and myrtle. Most of these trees or plants have associations with various deities. Because of their fragility, gold wreaths were probably not meant to be worn very often, only during special functions. They were also dedicated to the gods in sanctuaries and placed in graves as funerary offerings for wealthy or important people. Though they were known in earlier periods, gold wreaths became much more popular in the Hellenistic age, probably due to the greatly increased availability of gold in the Greek world following the conquests of Alexander the Great.