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Ancient Baltic Jewellery

About the Baltic Art


Prof. Libertas Klimka


Every nation has its roots of origin, distant ancestors and their cultural heritage. In today's Europe, Scandinavians believe they have originated from the Vikings, Irish – from the Celtic, and Germans – from the Germanics. Lithuanians and Latvians can be proud of their Baltic ancestors, emphasizing their world reflections in contemporary culture. The world is exciting by ethnic and cultural differences and diversity.


We can tell about the material and spiritual life of our Baltic forefathers of archaeological finds of mounds, ancient settlements and in particular the burial monuments. The Baltic identity can be seen already in Neolithic pottery, amber and ivory. However, the Baltic art style, which is very different from those created by neighbours, began to unfold most widely in the old times of the Iron Age. Upon receipt of the initial momentum of the Romanic culture along the Amber Road in the first centuries after Christ, it evolved further quite independently and originally. Fairly rapid evolution was, among others, due to the custom of making a new set of metal jewellery for each generation. Having brought themselves raw materials from the central Europe, our ancestors would make jewellery on their mounds.


What the characteristics of the Baltic art are? Brass jewellery is stylized by abandoning the realistic depiction of animals or plants, and replacing them with geometric and symbolic ornaments. These artefacts of applied arts are the abstract reception of reality. For example, often in jewellery you could see the sun and moon signs, but they were used for modelling the world and creating spatial and temporal structures. The main festivals of the year were determined according to the extremities of the azimuth of rising and setting Sun, by creating a framework of a calendar system. It is symbolized by the circle, divided into eight parts. Records of changes in the Moon phases allowed distinguishing weeks and months. On the piece of jewellery it can be expressed as the number of moon pendants.


Compared with neighbouring cultures, a high level of abstraction is striking. So we can say that an early Baltic culture is characterized by a tendency to symbolism. This brings the Baltic art closer to the modern art. Interestingly, this trait persisted over the millennia in traditional folk art. You can easily see the world (meaning in Lithuanian "what is under the sun") model linking time and space in decor ornaments of wooden household items, fabric patterns, and Easter eggs. The continuity of cultural traits is really rare, determined by the stability of agricultural lifestyle.


Reserved Nordic Baltic culture was focused on the simple, soul-comforting world harmony. Beauty for the Balts lived in symmetry, which was observed by artisans not only in creating a separate piece of jewellery, but arranging them on the clothes. Incidentally, jewellery and had a practical purpose, which is an integral part of the costume – holding the cloak, upper garment cuffs or the collar. Therefore, people were buried with all their kits.


The Balts used to make jewellery of brass and bronze, sometimes of silver, or coated them with a thin layer of tin. These are metals of quiet and warm colours. The Balts borrowed from the Scandinavians and masterful developed the decoration of artworks with the so-called štempeliai – the pattern was simply punched into the metal plate with a chisel on the inner side of jewellery. This technique was followed with ornaments of stylized stars, a variety of forms of which are found in the Baltic jewellery. The ancient Baltic goldsmiths were among the first to use the metal enamelling technique. The Balts used colour enamel to decorate rings, openwork items brooches, bracelets and other articles.


Humans imagery is very rare in the Baltic art. Human figure turns into an ornament in tracery jewellery, sometimes it is depicted just as a head only, with nose and eyebrows. It is even difficult to see ... Animals were depicted much more often. Archaeologists find brooches with a horse head or adder in motifs. Over the centuries, these images were becoming more abstract and gradually the animal's head quote be recognized only from two barely visible holes, signifying the eyes. Meanwhile, tripartite division of the jewellery edge that was supposed to mean ears would rather resemble a lily. The intertwined adders – mythically significant creatures – make the Baltic swastika, frequent in brooches. This sign symbolizes the movement, and maybe even the sky rotation. Adder's image often was decorated on the rings. They repeatedly coiled the finger, and the surface of turns was decorated with marches resembling reminiscent scales. This is a very common shroud, one of the most popular jewellery items. The ring indicates one’s social position in society, his affiliation to some group. Wearing an adder on the finger meant having its protection against all sorts of dangers. Extremely interesting are the rings with a crosspiece, found in rich women's graves. With artistic judgment, the Balts where combining rings with other wearable jewellery – bracelets, brooches.


Another piece of jewellery especially significant for the Baltic clothing, both of men and women, was a pin. They have been very different: archaeologists have found loop-type, trumpet, mushroom-shaped, with the roles, rosettes, ball heads, bone, iron pins. This tool and also a piece of jewellery was widely used in all parts of clothing: for pinning a headdress, for attaching an upper garment. Pins with a head decorated with two snails was the genuine Baltic jewellery worn in these lands for many centuries, particularly favourite by Samogitian, Curonian and Semigallian women. Pins were worn in pairs, or even across the entire width of the chest, they were interconnected with openwork hooks, various chains, decorated with dangling plates and coloured stones.


Some of the distinguished jewellery are pendants depicting fantastic animals, such as a land-based creature with a fish tail. It is likely that they were mythic mascots with protective effect. They were often worn several pieces at a time, for their sound to chase away evil forces. Meanwhile, smartly styled Semigallian little horse pendant is indeed a depiction of a millennial friendship between the Baltic horse rider and the horse, which helped so many of our ancestors' in their freedom struggle.


Modern theories of sociobiology suggest that cultural archetypes are inherited also genetically. After all, certain sounds, different harmony, certain combinations of colours and even specific behavioural types are acceptable for people of every nation. All this is determined by the community-based social experience and cultural heritage, stemming from the style of living in the surrounding nature. The time dimension plays a very important role here. The development of Baltic culture has been lasting for millennia.





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