Conceived as a simple wreath of branches and leaves, tiaras were, in their earliest form, mainly connected with religious and funerary ceremonies. Wreaths of natural leaves and flowers have been found in Egypt on the head and on the breasts of mummies of pharaohs dating from the XX and XXI dynasties (1200-945 BC) possibly confirming the general assumption that tiaras originated in the oriental world. However, these wreaths of natural leaves and flowers are predated by imposing gold head bands decorated with animal heads and stylised floral motifs from the Second Intermediate Period (1648–1540 BC) and from the New Kingdom (1479–1425 BC), see images 1 and 2.
The enduring appeal of the tiara | Part I - Early sightings: from Mesopotamia to Republican Rome
The form first seen in ancient civilisations has a long and distinguished history, and today the tiara is still the star at important state occasions and private events.
Here we present Part I in our four part survey.
In Mesopotamia, excavations of the royal tombs at Ur – Southern Iraq – have brought to light a wealth of gold ornaments including stunning head ornaments designed as chains of gold leaf motifs alternating with hardstone beads dating from around 2600 BC, see image 3.
In ancient Greece, wreaths of leaves were beautifully crafted in gold to adorn the statues of gods and goddesses in shrines and temples: oak for Zeus, olive for Athena, myrtle for Venus, ivy for Dionysus, and laurel for Apollo. Gold wreaths were offered to divinities as ex voto, their weight carefully accounted for by the priests in the inventories of the temples. Wreaths of natural leaves, flowers and berries were worn during religious processions by priests and sacrificial victims, and in funeral rituals, gold wreathes were buried with the deceased to signify their victories in the battle of life.
The ritual and religious dimension and the sacred character of the wreath of leaves probably promoted its diffusion in different contexts. The wreath – stephane – in Greek – became a symbol of political status and was awarded as a military honour, see image 4. Winners of musical contests and athletic games were crowned with wreaths and the habit of wearing a wreath purely as a form of adornment at banquets and weddings spread among the wealthy of both sexes and is amply testified to by literary sources and vase painting, see images 5 and 6.
Archaeological excavations in Southern Italy, Macedonia and Southern Russia, brought to light fabulous gold examples of tiaras made of olive, oak, laurel, myrtle leaves and at times interspersed with berries, flowers and insects, realistically rendered, see image 7.
Although impressive looking the vast majority of these wreaths are too flimsy to have been worn by the living, and must have been especially made for funerary use, to secure the maximum effect with the minimum outlay of precious metal.
The other form of head ornament worn in ancient Greece was the diadem (from ‘diadein’, to bind around) a gold band embossed or applied with rosettes or other floral motifs, see images 8 and 9. More elaborate examples consisted of a crossover of gold bands connected by a Herakles knot motif, see image 10. In Hellenistic times, these ornaments, often rising to a pediment at the centre, were invariably decorated with more elaborate figurative scenes inspired by Greek mythology, see image 11. Later, the word ‘diadem’ came to denote the purple band with a white decoration, worn by Persian kings around their high-peaked headdress. Interestingly, the name for this type of headdress was ‘tiara’ the word now widely used with minimal variations in many languages, to indicate a variety of head ornaments that embraces circlets, diadems, wreaths, and kokoshnick.
In Republican Rome, jewellery was for long under official disapproval. The Law of the Twelve Tables, in the 5th century BC, limited the amount of gold which which the dead could be buried, and in the 3rd Century BC the Lex Oppia stipulated that an ounce of gold was all the precious metal a Roman lady could wear. The situation changed in the late years of the Republic and by the time the Empire was inaugurated in 27 BC well born women had acquired a taste for wearing pearls, gold and gemstones in great abundance. The Romans adopted the gold wreath as the supreme indication of rank and honour for both men and women, see images 12 and 13.
Roman imperial wreaths are often very different from the realistically rendered Hellenistic examples, they are made up of stylised gold leaves often attached in groups of three to a band of material, alternating with gold berries, see image 14.