Series Info...Playing with History #15:

Artisans in Historical Fiction II: Jewellery & Weaponry

by Michael Karlin
September 5, 2003

"I had very good dentures once. Some magnificent gold work. It's the only form of jewelry a man can wear that women fully appreciate."
- Graham Greene, novelist.

Civilisations were propelled into progression at the discovery of metal. Flint knives could cut through animal hides more efficiently and kept their sharp edges longer than their stone counterparts. Metals could be heated to great temperatures and mixed in certain volumes to form others, such as bronze, or to remove impurities that compromise the integrity of the metal, such as iron. Metals had many uses in the ancient, medieval and renaissance worlds, most notably in the use of jewellery and the mechanisms of war. They are arguably more important to the historical world than they are today, as many tasks accomplished in our daily lives once achieved through metallic items are being replaced by superior carbon-based or plastic-based materials. I do not hesitate to opine that the supremacy of metal is a bygone concept.

Beauty of the Earth

Jewellery can come in many incarnations all dedicated to relating a certain image to the viewer. Jewellery is not about accenting the body's natural beauty like a cosmetic; it specialises in adding to the natural human beauty. As animals rarely adorn themselves or keep trophies of their kills, jewellery seems to me to be a symbol of the human mastery over its immediate environment.

At first the use of animal remains were used to display cunning or prowess at a time where the success of sustenance hunting meant life or death. The success of the hunt meant the fortunate welfare of the familial unit or tribe, and thus the person's stature as a life-giver was outlined by trophies of their conquests: bones, teeth and nails of fallen prey bleached by the sun and strung together by sinew. The importance of this relatively savage display of cunning waned as humanities consolidated into larger communities fed by the produce of the field. Concurrent innovations regarding the use of certain metals and the cutting and polishing of precious stones led to the innovation of jewellery's key ingredient: intricacy. Crafting a piece of jewellery is particularly difficult because it requires very still hands and the ability to work under magnification. The most important aspect of jewellery creation in an online game is the recognition of what was possible in that place at that time. Most materials were available, but were they able to be cut or fashioned properly? Egypt had an incredible amount of gold at their disposal, and since gold melts quickly and may be fashioned easily, gold jewellery was commonplace in their society. However, the amount of precious or semi-precious stones available were limited because of their limited trade routes and limit on the technology that would allow them to cut precious stones. The existence of diamond jewellery in ancient Egypt is a massive anachronism that we will not be adding to our game.

Lastly, jewellery may have a religious or symbolic significance greater than anything else crafted by a human being. The Egyptians empowered their amulets with prayers and blessings from priests in order to give it deific powers. This would make amulets charms of luck, health or divine protection.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Take note of any cultural superstition that would identify a certain stone or metal as especially holy or taboo,
  • Take note of supply and demand differences in your culture as opposed to the setting of your game. In modern Western civilisation, gold is more precious than silver. In ancient Egypt, this is quite the opposite because silver is much rarer in their society,
  • Take note of any special symbolism a piece of jewellery has in your setting. Remember that a gold ring on the fourth finger does not denote marriage in every society or historical setting.

With this Fine Creation, I Strike You Down

The evolution of weaponry in history was driven by the desire for a soldier to kill his or her enemy with greater efficiency and with less vulnerability to themselves. Starting with the club and other blunt objects, melee weaponry was perfected with the sword. What made the sword so perfect was its versatility; with it, one can cut like an axe and thrust like a spear. Add to that features that made it relatively lightweight, well-balanced and compact and the result is the ultimate killing utensil. Swords did come in many different lengths, weights, sizes and adornments, but the concept was fairly universal around the world. In fact, weaponry is one area that the world first experienced a rudimentary version of globalisation. If an enemy carried a weapon vastly superior to yours, you would either adapt and use it yourself or you would die. This is why swords, spears, gunpowder weapons and surface-to-air missiles are proliferated worldwide. The ancient Egyptians were no exception to this; part of the reason that they were conquered by the Asiatic Hyksos people was the latter's use of the chariot. Not only did the Egyptians blatantly take the technology for their own, but they combined it with their use of the composite bow to decisively defeat the invaders. They adapted, whereas the Aztecs, who succumbed to the Spanish use of horses and guns, did not. Therefore, the use of certain weaponry over others is very much a temporal issue over a geographic one.

Bear in mind that the introduction of certain weapons may drastically affect a civilisation. Life has not been the same since atomic weapons obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gunpowder changed the nature of inter-band conflict of the Aboriginals of North America, and the invention of the stirrup allowed the Mongol Empire to sweep through Europe.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • What weaponry is used in your setting? Is it indigenous or imported? If imported, what is the history behind that?
  • Is your setting in the midst of a "transition period," or a period when new materials in weaponry (bronze over iron, gunpowder, rocketry) change the dynamics of a society?
  • Are certain weapons restricted to or from certain classes or segments of society?

In two weeks: I'll actually talk about food or drink in history, like I promised two weeks ago.

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