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The art of granulation

in early Iranian Gold Jewellery


By Rachel K. Maxwell-Hyslop

 5th International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology


A discussion of the technique of granulation can be well illustrated by the bracelet from Agar Quf and this method of decoration can be defined as "soldering small spherical drops of gold on to a backing". "Granules of. gold were presumably made by melting the metal and pouring it slowly into cold water, the droplets afterwards being sorted for size, probably by sieving, or by cutting short lengths of wire and heating them until a drop formed". (H.W. Hodges, Artifacts P.95 London. 1966.).

 Technologists have expressed differing opinions as to the exact method used in ancient times to fix the drops to the backing, but at least two methods of soldering were used by Sumerian goldsmiths in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, where the solder was made either of a piece of the same gold as the objects to be joined or from an alloy of gold and silver having a lower melting point than the actual gold pieces, and containing at least 40% silver. The gum used to fix the grains in place before metallic union was effected was probably obtained from the tragaganth shrub, which is native to Iran. 

In England. H. Littledale discovered and patented a method successfully used for copying some of the finest pieces of Etruscan and Greek jewellery in the British Museum and suggested that this method was used by ancient craftsmen. A mixture of glue and copper oxide was used to fix the grains in place and the work then heated with a mouth blow pipe. The grains were handled by fine brushes and as the temperature rose the copper compound was reduced to metallic copper which alloyed itself to the gold, making a solder which fastened the grains firmly in place. 

The origin of the technique of granulation can be seen at Ur, where we find the beginnings of this process in the tomb of Queen Pu-Abi. Two rings were found, one made of six, the other of five, minute grains of gold whose diameter is only 2-3 millimetres. The gold dagger sheath also shows early attempts at granulation combined with the technique of filigree decoration, which was well developed at Ur in the Early Dynastic period, used on beads and pendants and also combined with cloisonné work. 

One of the so-called "dog collars" worn by many of the women in the Early Dynastic period at Ur was composed, not of the usual alternate flat triangular gold and lapis lazuli beads but of seventeen triangles, of gold and carnelian, the gold made up of twenty-one minute gold ball beads, soldered together. Although there was no separate backing this may represent an early attempt to make a decorative pattern in minute gold beads which would form a model for the later triangular patterns which do not occur at Ur or anywhere else as early as the mid 3rd millennium BCE Yet the Sumerian tradition of jewellery making was based on the skilled production of a vast quantity of different kinds of jewellery and gold work which is shown by the elaborate headdresses and other jewellery worn by the women and this developed tradition is important in any consideration of later Iranian jewellery. Sumerian influence can be detected on a pair of gold earrings and a pendant from Anatolia which comes from a grave of the early Bronze age levels at Kultepe. 

For the period of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, around 2000 BCE Ashur in Assyria has produced fine examples of earrings with granular decoration, while Elamite jewellers at Susa were evidently skilled in the same technique which was used for triangular and circular patterns on earrings. An example of the combination of cloisonné, filigree and granulation comes from Byblos where the round medallion from the famous Montet jar shows extremely fine work which can also be found on many other objects from the Royal tombs and in the votive offerings dating from the 19th-18th centuries B. C. At this period in Iran, also in Trialeti in Transcaucasia and in the Larsa period in Babylonia, sites such as Ur and Lagash produce advanced examples of the use of granulation especially on earrings. From the mid 2nd millennium B. C. onwards we can trace a continuous history of this technique although few pieces have survived the hazards of sack and pillage, when temple treasuries at cities such as Ur and Susa were plundered by invaders from Elam or looted by Babylonian and Assyrian armies. The Kassite period has produced not only the Agar Quf bracelet but examples from a grave at Babylon (bead, pendant and an earring, comparable to later work at Marlik) but the 16th century BCE is distinguished by the mass of material from Tell Ajjul, ancient Gaza, in Palestine which is important for its relations with earlier and later work in both Babylonia and Iran. We have not yet sufficient evidence to explain the sudden appearance of the technique of granulation at Ajjul; it is possible that jewellers practising this method of decoration settled there having learnt it from goldsmiths in Phoenicia, Egypt, Babylonia or Elam. Some of the jewellery, such as the star pendants and Astarte plaques can be found at Ras Shamra on the Phoenician coast and other Palestinian sites, while the distinctive twisted earrings occur in Iran at Dinkha tepe. The round star pendants are also common to Ajjul Marlik and several other Iranian sites. A fine bird earring decorated in minute granules is unique to Aj j ul and the inspiration here may possibly have been the great metalworking centre of Byblos. 

While goldsmiths working in Assyria in the 13th and 12th centuries BCE probably exercised a considerable influence on contemporary and later Iranian gold work the accounts in the historical texts of the inclusion of foreign craftsmen among the vast numbers of prisoners taken after eastern campaigns suggests that skilled Iranian goldsmiths may have been forcibly settled at Ashur. Here the famous grave 45 produced an astonishing amount of gold and silver jewellery combined with fine cloisonné work for precious stones. In Iran, at Susa, in the time of Shilhak - in - Shushinak in the 12th century BCE finger rings show a standard of granular decoration which approaches the best 8th and 7th century work in Asia and the well-known whetstone with gold lions head finial and triangulary granular decoration which has been described as Medio - Elamite provides the bridge to fully developed Achaemenid work. 

An interesting group of jewellery from Gok tepe now in the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge includes a pair of earrings inlaid with lapis lazuli, decorated with filigree and a border of close set granular triangles. A pair of comparable earrings from the same site but undecorated is in the Iran Bastan Museum. The necklace with long gold tubular beads, triple blue glazed spacers and agate and carnelian is comparable to jewellery from Kinkha tepe and the connections point to the west and especially to Ajjul and Atchana on the Phoenician coast. A date in the 16th - 15th centuries for the Gok tepe group can be put forward and it is possible that we have here in Azerbaijan the earlier stages of the magnificent granular jewellery work which is well-known from Marlik and which has been published in such detail by Professor Negahban.




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