This catalogue of an exhibit at the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney presents jewelry housed in Australian public and private collections. Most of the pieces are ancient, but seven examples of Neo-Classical, or “archaeological style,” ornaments are also included, in order to illustrate the influence of ancient jewelry on late-nineteenth-century Classical revival fashion.
The catalogue is intended for a general audience rather than for scholarly readers. Short entries answer basic questions about how and by whom jewelry was made, what materials were commonly used, and who wore these pieces. Longer essays look to provide some cultural contexts for the ornaments, both ancient and nineteenth-century. The stories of Helen and Eriphyle, in which adornment provoked marital disloyalty, illustrate the “betrayal” of the title. The authors of these essays connect the contradictory attitudes towards adornment with Greek stereotypes of deceptive female beauty and faithlessness.
Elizabeth Bollen’s essay, “Helen’s Jewels: From Homer to Schliemann and Poynter,” moves beyond the ancient myth to recount Schliemann’s discovery of gold jewelry at Troy. Bollen links the famous photo of Sophia Schliemann draped in the diadems, earrings, and necklaces from Troy with Edward John Poynter’s 1881 painting, “Helen,” now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The model was the famous beauty Lily Langtry, mistress of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and Poynter garnished her with a large gold and carnelian necklace created by Carlo Giuliano, one of several archaeological-style designers active in the late nineteenth century. Although the exhibit does not include any Greek Bronze Age artifacts, the Trojan gold provides a good case study for an exhibit that considers the European afterlife of ancient jewelry. Bollen’s essay recounts the rediscovery of the Trojan ornaments in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, in 1994, and the most recent scholarly assessments concerning the date of the material.
Of the seventy-five ancient and Neo-Classical objects catalogued, about two-thirds are previously unpublished. Few of the pieces have any reliable provenience, with the exception of ten objects, mostly earrings, excavated by Petrie at Tell el-Ajjul. Given the interest of the curators in the many life-stages of ancient jewelry, it would have been useful to describe how the jewelry made its way from Gaza to Australia. A few artifacts merit special attention, including an Irish gold “torc” found in County Cork in 1857 (cat. 57), which could have decorated the head or the neck. The catalogue recounts the modern history of the piece, including its arrival at the Nicholson Museum, but also sets out the conundrum that unique artifacts represent. While it does have a secure archaeological provenience, it lacks comparanda and has been dated anywhere from 900 BCE to 900 CE. Monica Jackson examines a pair of Hellenistic Nike earrings, discussing artistic connections between large-scale sculpted Nike figures and the popularity of miniature versions in Late Classical and Hellenistic jewelry.
To me, the exhibit demonstrates the real limitations imposed by jewelry that lacks archaeological context. Antiquities collections, even small ones, often contain jewelry, since such trinkets would attract travelers or collectors who would eventually donate them to museums. By that point, the pieces are completely divorced from their original findspot, and it is difficult to connect them to the Greek, Roman, or Egyptian women (or men) who used them. In this exhibit, jewelry from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome, and Ireland are combined, connected only by their function as adornments. The curators attempted to provide some coherence by using the notion of beauty and betrayal; they do this well, but in fact the concept relates mainly to Greek culture. The exhibit may well have distinguished among the different cultural groups, but the catalogue does not, thus implying that the same attitudes applied in all of these regions. More successful is the connection between ancient and neo-Classical jewelry and the efforts to illuminate the history of collecting and nineteenth-century attitudes towards the past.
The readership for this catalogue is small. Visitors to the museum would likely gain the most from it. The fact that the most vivid images of women adorned with ancient jewelry come from nineteenth-century depictions rather than from ancient images only reinforces the challenge of reconnecting personal ornaments with their original wearers.