Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba
Contemporary impressions of seductive female figures from antiquity have been vividly shaped by Hollywood actors who have endeavoured (with varying degrees of success) to capture their enduring allure. The Queen of Sheba is one such immortal figure, played by a vampish Betty Blythe draped in 1920's style pearls in the eponymous silent movie.

The following lecture vignettes give an overview of the jewellery worn by two glamorous actors in their roles as Queens of the ancient world - Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of Egypt. Comparasions are made between jewellery preserved from antiquity, and film adaptations -  sometimes accurate but most often an ill informed mix of styles and periods.

From Helen of Troy to Cleopatra: Bejewelled Beauties of the Ancients

Lecture at The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) - 14/10/2004

What is the historical reality behind Helen's film jewellery?

In Wolfgang Pederson's 2004 epic film Troy, we gaze upon the face of the most beautiful woman in the ancient world in the form of the actor Diane Kruger who plays the role of the Spartan Queen Helen, wife of the Greek (Spartan) King Menelaus who was abducted by the Trojan Prince Paris. In the film she is adorned with a strange assortment of jewellery styles, dating from the Early Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period.

In 1873 Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) the amatuer archaeologist and excavator of Troy, discovered a spectacular hoard of 250 gold objects at the base of a curved trench wall, near what he believed to be the ancient entrance way to Troy - the Scaean Gate - to which he gave the collective name the "Treasure of Priam". The Early Bronze Age treasure now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, is dated to 2,500 BC - a full millennium before the era in which the siege in Homer's Trojan war epic is most likely to have been set, between 1500 and 1180 BC - corresponding to the excavation levels of Troy VI and VIIa. Troy's golden era ended around 1180 BC.

'Priam's Treasure' The Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Schliemann's wife Sophia above, wears the spectacular golden parure from "Priam's Treasure" (headdress, necklaces and earrings). The headdress is made up of 1,353 separate pieces. This famous photograph was the inspiration for the Early Bronze Age replicas worn by Diane Kruger (below) as Helen of Troy in the film.

Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy adorned in Early Bronze Age jewellery

Although many ancient tombs and hoards contained heirloom jewellery - Heinrich Schliemann's hoard had almost certainlly once belonged to an aristocratic Trojan woman who had lived and died more than 1,000 years before Helen was born - this is a long time to keep jewellery in the family!

Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy wearing jewellery from many periods

From these stunning (far too early) adaptations, Helen's film jewellery spirals into a confusing mix of periods and styles in true Hollywood/Bollywood tradition.

For example she is adorned with  contemporary "Indian" style earrings and a Late Bronze Age inspired "boar's tooth" necklace. The "boar's tooth" style has retained its popularity, as can be seen by its fashionable counterpart on the right.

Even more amazing is that Helen/Diane wears an accurate adaptation of a beautiful Greek Hellenistic flowering diadem, like the gold diadem below - found at Carbonara di Bari in Pulia. This type was made famous by the goldsmiths of Taranto in Pulia (Apulia) South Italy during the second half of the 3rd century BC.  

Gold diadem with roses from Bari, Apulia, National Archaeological Museum, Taranto

But what jewellery did the historical Helen Queen of Sparta really wear to bewitch the Trojan Prince, Paris ca. 1200 BC?

Diane Kruger as she might have looked adorned in Late Bronze Age jewellery 

Helen of Troy - Bejewelled Dazzler

The historical Helen would have been decked out in a parure of Late Bronze Age gold jewellery (ca. 1600-1100 BC) similar to the treasures (above) from the royal tombs in the grave circles at the ancient citadel at Mycenae near Nauplion Greece - described by Homer as "rich in gold". The Mycenaean civilization which centered on the Argolid in Greece, reached its zenith in the 14th and 13th Centuries BC.

Diadem - excavated by H. Schliemann at Mycenae in the women's grave in the upper grave circle. Athens, National Archaeological Museum. Dated to the second half of the 16th century BC.

Neckalce - Inv. 8748. From Dendra, Argolid (Chamber tomb 10). Athens, National Archaeological Museum. Late 15th Century BC. L. of neckalce 32 cm. The necklace is composed of 39 hollow, plano-convex beads, 20 in the shape of papyrus-lily and 19 in the shape of a half rosette.

Earrings - Inv. 8745. From Dendra, Argolid (Chamber tomb 10). Athens, National Archaeological Museum. Late 15th Century BC. Max. dia. 5.2 cm. The earrings are hollow, made of thin sheet-gold. They consist of an outer hoop with a rosette of 16 repoussé petals suspended inside it. Together with the necklace they are outstanding examples of Creto-Mycenaean gold.


                                                          CLEOPATRA VII

Limestone head Cleopatra VII with triple uraeus (cobra heads)
From Helen of Troy, who was the object of one of the most dramatic love stories of all time, to another legendary Queen who sacrificed all for love - Cleopatra VII (c. 69 - 30 BC). Cleopatra was the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruling Egypt from 51-30 BC. She is imortalised for her political astuteness, intelligence and personal magnatism - but above all for her love affairs with the Roman warlords Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Ptolemaic gold serpent finger ring with a garnet setting, 1st cent. BC

Love tokens exchanged between the doomed Mark Antony and Cleopatra, took the form of jewels which expressed the depth of their mutual passion and devotion. Like all legendary lovers throughout history, they understood the triumphant power of Eros - best affirmed by Virgil's immortal phrase:

     "amor omnia vincit" (Love conquers all) Eclogues. X, 69.


In 1963 the screen goddess - Elizabeth Taylor assumed the role of Cleopatra, and this time her jewellery reflected ancient Egyptian styles. On the right above she wears a wig close to that depicted on the 1st century BC Parian marble bust (left) of Cleopatra VII, in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. On Elizabeth's head is the Uraeus (cobra) crown of Egyptian royalty. 

These lectures note an enduring verity:
jewellery touches upon our deepest hopes and fears, because it is closely linked with some of life’s major experiences and events – love, religion, marriage, victory, loss and death.                                                                   

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