“Valuable” research at the British Museum

3rd century gold necklace set with amethysts, stones linked with peltae (Shields used by Amazon women warriors)

During my visit to the UK, I went for my usual research day at the British Museum. This time, I was looking at Roman jewellery, specifically Late Antiquity/early Eastern Roman (Byzantine).

While fashions change as new cultural preferences develop, no one historical period suddenly stops and another begins.

People were still wearing a tunic as their main garment and a top covering as a form of wrap or even cloak in AD 400 as they did in Augustus’s time in the first century AD.

Inevitably, styles and names  evolved. Roman enthusiasts may be sad to hear that the segmented armour and toga had gone out and trousers were in by the end of the fourth century and actually, all these tendencies started earlier. Both sexes wore more elaborately decorated tunics with embroidery and wide stripes of decorations. Women wore a floor length, wide-sleeved tunic called a dalmatica, not a stola.

Necklace and earrings from AD 400 Carthage, rock emeralds, sapphires and pearls on gold wire

Jewellery designs changed with influence from other peoples such as Germanic tribes – Alemanni, Goths, Franks, but the principles of necklace, brooches, rings, buckles and bracelets stayed constant. Designs, metals and gemstones for Romans in the Empire didn’t really change that radically, but as ‘barbarian’ and elaborate eastern influences and craftmanship became stronger and took over the West, preferences grew towards the heavier and more elaborate jewellery came to dominate.

Gold chain with openwork pendant sent with emeralds sapphire and pearls. Approximately AD 600.

The Etruscan, Roman and post Roman rooms are fascinating and I heartily recommend a visit to the museum if you are in London. It’s an enormous (and popular) place and it’s best to go with a plan!

Gold crescent earrings around 600 AD

More about the museum https://www.britishmuseum.org/

I can’t finish without showing you my favourite earrings from the visit. Also dated to around AD 600, they show the classic hoop popular for many decades, but overlaid with a more elaborate Eastern Roman decoration on the lower crescent.

All photos are mine, taken with my iPhone through the glass cases. Apologies for any reflections.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

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