Wednesday, May 16, 2007

East And West: The Ancient Gem Trade Between India and Rome

2007: Here is a fascinating story on gem trade and practices of the ancient world. Even today the concept remains pretty much the same; instead we use new jargons. It's educational and entertaining.

(via Gemological Digest, Vol.3, No.1, 1990) Peter Francis, Jr writes:

The Roman Empire was among the best customers of the ancient world. From outside the Empire she sought items of luxury, especially precious gems. India was pleased to supply the insatiable appetite of the Roman elite. In turn, Rome paid mostly in gold coin, and supplied India with only one desired luxury, coral. The ancient gem trade was characterized by much mystery surrounding the sources of jewels, at least some of it purposeful smoke screen to ward off competition. In addition, there was general ignorance about the nature of gems such as pearls and coral. Even more important than the commerce in what we call precious stones was that in semi precious stones. Recent archaeological work has helped reveal some of the facts of this once thriving Indian industry.

To the ancient Romans, the East, especially India, was the depository of all wealth. The Indians not only sold her mineral treasures to Rome, but were leaders in developing technologies that allowed them to be exploited.

Just over 2000 years ago the sea-faring Arabs taught Roman sailors an important secret: how to sail through the Erythraean or Red Sea, which then included the whole of the western Indian Ocean. The secret involved understanding the predominant wind patters by which ships could sail from west to east for a few months and then back from east to west during the other half of the year. This took advantage of the famous trade winds.

In those days Rome was the greatest power in the West. Aristrocrats were only politically ascendant, but also fabulously wealthy. They demanded objects that could prove their wealth beyond doubt, especially those for ostentatious display. For a very long time the best way to show off wealth has been to wear jewelry. Precious stones set in precious metals and worn by the precious few are a principal means of demonstrating that one has arrived and is rich, whether nouveau or otherwise.

This is why the discovery of a simple sea route to the East was so important to the Romans. Above all, the East meant wealth, treasure, gems and jewels beyond imagination; it was considered the depository of all valuable goods.

There were two mighty empires in the East: China and India. China was a wealthy land but also an impenetrable mystery. Though trade trickled across mountains and deserts between China and Rome, sea routes were long and dangerous and hardly ever used over such a vast distance. The Mediterranean world and China were isolated for centuries, save for the Silk Route, which was periodically closed by Central Asian bandits whenever control was weak in the Middle Kingdom.

But India was different story. A land widely renowned for its treasure, India had long traded luxury products to the western world. Millenia before Rome was built, carnelian and lapis lazuli were sold by the Indus Valley Civilization to the city states of Mesopotamia. King Solomon of Israel around 1000 B.C sent ships to Ophir to fetch gold and silver, precious stones and ivory. Though scholars disagree on exactly where Ophir was, the evidence points to India. Thus, India’s reputation as a land of riches predates the Roman Empire by centuries. By the time the Romans were masters of the western world they were anxious to seek her wealth and bring it home.

The treasures of India and Western myths
Fabulous treasures often breed fabulous ideas. In the pre-scientific ages nearly any account told by travelers and traders was accepted at face value. Miners and sellers of precious minerals did not want to reveal their sources, so they fabricated stories about how they found them. As these tales were passed around, they acquired the air of truth. The days of systematic exploration were still far off. Stories which only make us smile today were once widely believed. They explained the sources of precious materials in an entertaining and satisfying way, often emphasizing the dangers involved in securing the earth’s riches, the better to ward off would be poachers and thereby inflate prices.

The Romans believed that Indian gold was dug by ants. India has long been a gold importer, but also produced gold of its own. The gold mines near Hutti in southern India go back to this age, and old shafts go down to 250 feet (80 meters). The mines near Kolar, also in southern India, may not be that old, but have been worked so long and are so deep (up to 650 feet or 200 meters) that today they are being used for an experiment by physicists to determine whether protons, one of the constituents of atoms, every decay. These experiments must be carried out in deep mines to shield the sensitive equipment from cosmic rays, and the abandoned Kolar gold mines are perfect for this purpose.

But the Romans knew nothing about nuclear physics; they believed that insects mined gold in India. The historian Herodotus said that ants bigger than foxes brought up gold nuggets the size of walnuts while building their hill. Men had to get the gold during the hottest part of the day so that the ants would be in their burrows. The ants could smell the men coming to steal their gold, and would rush out to chase them away.

How did such a story get is start? We cannot say for sure, but it is possible that ants have brought up small pieces of gold while constructed their homes. A common archaeologists’ trick is to examine ant hills because the inhabitants sometimes excavate beads and other small artifacts from under the surface. Maybe somewhere the tiny, hardworking insects brought up enough gold to start the legend of the gold digging ants? Unlikely, and scholars also suggest that a linguistic confusion is responsible for the legend. Gold sent to India from Tibet was once called paipilika gold, while the gold supposedly dug by the ants were known as pipilikia gold. Maybe the gold digging ants were really Tibetans.

Beryl and diamonds, pearl and coral
As eager as the Romans were for gold, they were even more infatuated with beryl and pearls. India was glad to supply both.

The Roman savant Pliny in his Natural History said that beryls came only from India. There he believed they were all shaped into hexagonal prisms, though some authorities claimed that was their natural form. The Indians pierced them and strung them on elephant hairs.

Beryls were very special because they were the hardest materials that could be made into beads, harder than virtually any mineral except the corundum gems and diamond. Of course, the beryl beads were not formed by men; the natural hexagonal crystal shape was retained, and they were merely drilled lengthwise to be strung. The beryl mines of India were located in Coimbatore district in the south. So important was this industry that the largest hoards of Roman gold coins in India have been found there. This fact alone speaks for the tremendous demand for beryls in the Roman Empire and the gravitational pull of the mining area for Roman money.

The other secret in the export of beryl beads was that India could drill them despite their hardness. This calls for a diamond, and India was the principal source of diamonds for a long time. It is uncertain how long they were known in India, but the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world (about 1500 B.C), mentions vajra, the thunderbolt with which the god Indra slew his enemies. Some 700 years later in the Atharva Veda, vajra had become a minor deity, the chief of the scathers, doing more than harm to enemies than any other god. Vajra could cut even the mythical Asuras, who bound men by slinging iron nets around them. The word vajra in later Sanskrit means diamond. Was the god Vajra of the Atharva Veda also a diamond, able to cut the Asuras iron nets? If this is correct, it means that the Indians recognized the cutting power of diamonds quite early.

In any case, the Indians were the first to use diamonds industrially. Double-tipped diamond drills were used to perforate quartz and chalcedonies at Arikamedu, in southeast India, occupied from the third century B.C to the third century A.D and it seems that all stone beads there were perforated with these drills. This use was recognized in the Greek and Roman world at least by the first century A.D. The earliest reference to diamonds in China was in A.D 114; they were first called chin-kang, which means gold hard or metal hard, the Chinese rendering of vajra.

The early literature on diamond is full of myths. Epiphanius, a fourth century bishop of Cyprus, was first to relate that diamonds were found only in one valley densely inhabited by poisonous snakes. To retrieve them, men threw pieces of meat down and eagles swooped in and took the meat to their nests. Diamonds stuck to the meat when it landed on the valley floor, and could be retrieved (though not without considerable risk) by killing the eagles or raiding their nests. The story became widely circulated. It is found in Chinese texts by 510 A.D, was part of the lore of the Arab hero, Sinbad the Sailor, and was recounted by Marco Polo 900 years later. Some scholars have suggested that it echoed sacrificing an animal before looking for diamonds, but this has no basis in fact. It seems more likely that it was a tale circulated by the Indians to discourage outsiders from raiding the mines.

Roman women (and a few men, much to Pliny’s disgust) adored pearls. Pearls are found in the Persian Gulf, but also along the southern Indian coast, especially in the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar. There are no accounts from Roman times as to how the pearl fishing was conducted. Marco Polo described the scene in the thirteenth century, and in 1797 Le Beck left a more detailed report. Their accounts are probably similar to the way pearl fishing was done in early times.

The center of activity was the deserted village of Condatchy, which sprung to life during the fishing season. The divers were fishermen from along the Indian coasts. They and merchants, brokers, and common people hoping for sudden wealth converged on Condatchy despite brackish water, the hoards of beggars who followed the crowds, and what was described as overpoweringly disagreeable odors.

The small diving boats held twenty one men: ten to dive, five to handle the diving stones and nets, and six to row. The divers would not enter the water until anti-shark magic was performed. After that, a net attached to a stone was dropped off the boat and the divers held their breath and plunged in. While diving they hung onto the cord that attached the nets and stones to the boats. Each diver stayed under about two minutes, descending fifteen to thirty meters.

The shells were opened on the shore, and the pearls sorted with small perforated brass plates or weighed on scales. Common people bought shells from the brokers to open themselves, hoping for a rich prize. During the 1797 season day laborer paid two pennies for three shells and found one of the biggest pearls of that profitable season.

The men who drilled the pearls made very little money, considering the fortunes they handled, but worked swiftly and deftly. The pearls were put in a hole at the bottom of a small, soft, wooden, up-turned cone which sat atop a short tripod. A metal drill bit hafted in wood was held with the left hand while the right hand worked a small bow back and forth. The worker dipped the little finger of his right hand into water in a coconut shell to drip over the pearl to keep it cool while drilling. The remarkable dexterity needed to perform all these operations at once could only be acquired with long practice.

Though it was well known that pearls came from oysters, there was still an air of mystery surrounding them. Aristotle thought that pearls were oyster hearts, and the Roman polymath, Pliny, wrote that oysters would “Yawn and gape…(then) conceive a certain moist dew as (sperm)..and the fruit of these shellfish are pearls.” Centuries later there were still questions about oysters: Did they walk on the sea floor? Were pearls soft in the shell?

The gem trade between Roman and India was not entirely a one-way street. The Romans controlled a material which the Indians found particularly desirable: precious red coral. A Greek sailor of the first century wrote about his voyages in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, telling us that Roman coral from the Mediterranean was much in demand in India and China, where it was used for ornaments and various medicinal purposes.

In Roman times coral was the major trade product going from Europe to Asia. Indians had been in love with coral long before Roman contact, and stayed in love with it longer after the Romans had gone. It was a staple of commerce between medieval Egypt and India. When the French jeweler, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, visited India in the seventeenth century, he noted that though coral was only semiprecious in Europe, it was precious in India and to the north. Even in the early twentieth century India was still the world’s greatest market for the red gem of the sea.

The nature of coral also defied the experts. As late as the seventeenth century, coral was being classified by early botanists as a plant.

The quartz gems
Diamonds, pearls and beryl were eagerly sought in the Roman Empire, and Roman gold coins and coral were welcome in India. These were an important segment of the ancient trade between these great civilizations. However, in terms of sheer bulk these products were only a small part of the ancient East West gem trade. The greatest amount, and in many ways the most important, was in a material not as rare as diamonds or pearls, but still of great beauty. We now regard it as semiprecious, but the ancients made no distinction between precious and semiprecious.

The quartz minerals provide us with more gems and jewels than any other minerals family. The Indian agate gem industry was centered in the west, especially the state of Gujarat. It supplied carnelian to Mesopotamia 2000 years before Romans, and even in our day is the major supplier of such beads worldwide. Along with carnelian, the mines located along the River Narmada, supply banded agate. Both the carnelian and agate nodules are found in a layer of red silt that was deposited with the stones when they were washed out of the Vindhya Mountains aeons ago. The deposition stopped about 22000 years ago. In contact with this red silt, the stones have absorbed iron. When they are heated in a muffled (reducing) furnace the iron turns to red, giving us carnelian and sardonyx. This is the spot that the Roman geographer Ptolemy called “The Sardonyx Mountain.”

There was another important gem cutting center in ancient India, which had close contact with Rome and produced some of the finest semiprecious gem stones ever seen. The Romans called it Podouke (with variations), as close as they could get to the name Puduchcheri, which survives today in the name of a nearby modern city of Pondicherry. The ancient city is now better known as Arikamedu, a name given to the ruined site by the local villagers, meaning “The Mound of Arukan”.

Whatever it was called, Arikamedu was a bustling manufacturing and shipping center in the early centuries A.D. The Romans had an emporium there, a place for Roman merchants to live and do business. Arikamedu manufactured several products the Romans wanted, such as colored cloth and leathered goods. But the real wealth of the city was in gems and costume jewelry of both glass and semiprecious stones. It may well have been an important market for beryls and pearls. Whether these were a large part of the trade is not known, but we do know that the glassmakers of Arikamedu took advantage of the Roman fondness for beryls, imitating precious stones, beryl in particular. It wasn’t that they colored rock crystal, but that they knew to make tubes of glass and paddle them into hexagonal shapes to imitate beryl.

Foremost among these gems trade from Arikamedu was onyx for Roman cameos, small carvings in low relief on a material with differently colored layers, which leaves figures against a contrasting background. The Romans were crazy about these handsome jewels. Pliny mentioned their popularity and said that cameo cutting was a new art. This was probably because the sea route to India had been newly opened, and the cameo material was available in bulk for the first time. Cameo production was encouraged by the emperors themselves, and several of the Caesars had magnificent collections of them.

The Arikamedu lapidaries excelled in making fine black and white onyx for these cameos. Onyx is extremely rare in nature. Man has to help out if he wants it. The onyx of Arikamedu began as plain, banded grey and white agate. The grey bands are more porous than the white, and when agate is soaked in a sugar solution or honey, it absorbs some sugar. When the stone is heated afterwards, the sugar carmelizes, leaving brown and white bands. If it is put into sulphuric acid, the sugar is carbonized, making black and white onyx.

Arimamedu was apparently the first place to make black onyx. The lapidaries sold much of it to Rome. They used it themselves to cut beads and other products, including thin-walled onyx bowls or cups, but most of the onyx found in the archaeological site was made into flat pieces, ellipsoidal in shape, suitable only for cameo cutting.

Turning agate into onyx was not the only trick the Arikamedu beadmakers knew. Another favorite stone was amethyst; many beautiful amethyst beads have survived made in a lively style with an excellent technique. Poor quality amethyst can be treated to produce a different gemstone altogether. By firing amethyst in a complex process, the golden yellow citrine results. Again Arikamedu seems to be the first place citrine was made, and the stone took its place along others as a major raw material for beads and gems.

Other stones were also worked at Arikamedu. Garnets were polished for cabochons to be set into metal jewelry. Rock crystal quartz and carnelian were very popular, and we occasionally find smoky, rose and green crystal quartz, jasper and opal used for beads. The semi-translucent green prase was also cut in quantity.

The fourth century Greek geographer Dionysius Periegetes must have had Arikamedu in mind when he wrote, “Among the courses of mountain torrents (the Indians) search for precious stones, the green beryl, or the sparkling diamond, or the pale green translucent jasper, or the yellow stone, or the pure topaz, or the sweet amethyst which with milder glow imitates the lure of (royal) purple.” The green jasper and the yellow stone are doublets prase and citrine and, along with the sweet amethyst, were among the most important of Arikamedu’s products.

The raw stones for the Arikamedu lapidaries were not locally available. They were transported hundreds of kilometers from the mouths of the Krishna and Godavari Rivers on the east coast of India or from inland areas. Though the stones traveled before they reached Arikamedu, the trip would be nothing compared to the one they would make after being fashioned and sent to the Roman Empire.

The lapidaries were extremely skillful at their occupation. Beads, cabochons and cameo blanks were made there, as were finger rings, cups or bowls, ear reels and perhaps bangles. All these required considerable skill. The bowls/cups, bangles and finger rings were cut out with large diameter drills (perhaps bamboo), aided with abrasives. Circular striations from the rotary motion of the drills can still be seen on unpolished specimens.

Another key aspect of this ancient industry was its organization. One of the most astounding things about Arikamedu is that beads were apparently made to preconceived patterns, not only shape, which we would expect, but even in size. Measurements of the collar beads (with extra material around their apertures) show that some types had very uniform dimensions. One group differed no more than 0.2 and 0.4mm in width and length, while another group differed by only 0.8 and 1.1mm in length and width. Even 1.1 mm, the largest of these differences, is very small. The precision of the Arikamedu lapidaries is evident.

The cameos were not cut into form in India. This was done in the Roman Empire, not because the Indians could not do the exquisite work, but because the Romans insisted on portraits of their own emperors and gods. A few finished seals have been found at Arikamedu, but it is thought that they were made by Roman or Greek artist living there.

The superior craftsmanship and excellent materials employed at Arikamedu are more difficult to describe than to picture, and the best way to appreciate this work is look at the plates accompanying this article. As beautiful as some of the pieces are, however, keep in mind that the finest work was not lost or discarded in the city for archaeologists to uncover 2000 years later, but shipped to the West as an integral part of the ancient and long lived East-West trade in jewels and gemstones.

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