Roman Herculean and Pearl Necklaces
By: Domina Arria Marina

A Brief History About the Artifacts The Fayum portraits are a set of encaustic (wax) paintings dating back to Imperial Roman Egypt, from the first century AD during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (42 BC to 37 AD) until the third century AD. Although they were stylistically related to the tradition of Greco-Roman painting, they were created for a typically Egyptian purpose, as portraits inserted in the strips of the face of the mummy so that the deceased’s soul can recognize its body in the afterlife. Centuries later, they serve as primary sources into the clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles of our ancient ancestors. Apart from the gold wreaths worn by many men, with very few exceptions, only women are depicted with jewelry. This generally accords with the common jewelry types of the Graeco-Roman East. Most depict simple gold link chains and massive gold rings. There are also depictions of precious or semi-precious stones like emerald, carnelian, garnet, agate, amethyst, and pearls. The stones were normally ground into cylindrical, spherical, or faceted beads. There are three basic shapes of ear ornaments: circular or drop-shaped pendants, S-shaped hooks of gold wire on which up to five beads could be strung, and elaborate pendants with a horizontal bar from which two or three vertical rods are suspended with a bead or pearl at the bottom. Other common ornaments include gold hairpins, often decorated with pearls, fine diadems, and gold hairnets.


Herculean Knot Necklace The original dates to the second century AD, although very little is known about the subject of this portrait. She wears a gold necklace with emeralds and separated by Hercules Knots. This special knot of protection was particularly popular in Hellenistic Greece and the Roman Empire, as it symbolized strength, power, and love; it was often used during marriage ceremonies to show the unbreakable bond between the husband and wife. For this recreation, I used brass artistic wire and a wire bending jig. After much trial and error, I was able to create the Hercules Knots consistently, and I turned up the ends to make small hooks for the emerald links. The clasp is also handmade from the same brass wire. Mine: Faceted emeralds mounted on brass wire. (Using a jig helped with consistency in shape and size, and not over-tightening!)


Left: Portrait of a Woman, Fayum, Egypt. The Menil Collection (Houston, TX).
Right: Original emerald and Herculean Knot necklace, dated to 2nd Century. Located in the British Museum (London).

Pearl Necklace The original dates close to the period of the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). This woman is seen wearing a pearl and emerald necklace and earrings. With very little to go on, I simply created simple wire mounts for the stones, and alternated in linking them to create my necklace. Mine: Faceted emeralds and freshwater pearls mounted on brass wire.


Female Portrait Mask, Fayum, Egypt. Accession number 32.5. Centre Street: Third Floor: Early Byzantine Art: Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, MD).

Pearl Earrings The original painting is of a woman known as Aline, who died at the age of 35, in the tenth year of the reign of Tiberius. She was buried in a shared tomb along with the rest of her family. Today, the finds from the grave are at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Based on her portrait, it is believe that this woman belonged to the middle or upper levels of Romano-Egyptian society, and had led a good life. She is wearing a large pearl earring on gold wire. I recreated this using a large irregular-shaped freshwater pearl, topped with a tiny pearl seed before wrapping my brass wire. Mine: Freshwater pearls mounted on brass wire.


Portrait funéraire de la momie d’Aline 24 après J.-C. Empire romain tempera sur toile. Egyptian Museum of Berlin, a part of the Neues Museum (Berlin, Germany).