It started with the Fibrecircle ongoing journal challenge, Birthstones. Emerald is, of course, the birthstone for May. When we first started working on the birthstones theme this year, I found it really hard going. It isn't hard to find out information about birthstones and what people think is important about them, but I found it hard to see how that kind of information was going to inform my future artworks. Then I realised the pretty obvious thing - that nothing makes its way into what I make unless I have an emotional connection with it. Emotional links often come through stories, which I guess is another way of saying through people.
So I decided to follow what interested me about each birthstone. My interests include ancient history and archaeology. So it was a pretty small leap to start looking at the cultures who have valued each birthstone in a big way. For each birthstone, I've practised my skills by drawing my own images of cultural artefacts (you can see some of these drawings over on the Fibrecircle blog) and I've sought out stories and historical sources about people using that birthstone.
I started out thinking emerald would be the same. What culture loved emeralds? The Romans. Check out Roman artefacts, draw a picture. So far, so good.
I found my story too. Pliny the Elder, in a tone of disapproval, described Lollia Paulina, consort and third wife of the emperor Caligula of ill-repute, as, "covered with emerald and pearls interlaced and shining over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, the sum total amounting to the value of 40,000,000 sesterces." That's about 33,000 times the annual pay of a Roman soldier. She must have been a sight to behold! I hope she made the most of it, because she had been forced to divorce her husband to marry Caligula and then, not much later, was divorced by Caligula for failing to produce a child. She was later exiled and forced to commit suicide by his sister.
That's when it all got a bit derailed. I read about the Mons Smaragdus, the Emerald Mountain, from which all the Roman emeralds are believed to have come. Some say it's the earliest known emerald (or strictly speaking, beryl) mine, operating since 1500BCE. It's more likely that this is mixing up emeralds with amazonite, and the Mons Smaragdus was really just from some time after 400BCE. In either case, where was this fabulous mountain? Well, it was in Egypt.
That set me scratching my head. I didn't learn about this in school or university, when studied Ancient History and I didn't remember learning about it when I studied Egyptology. Egyptology is mostly studying Pharaonic Egypt, not Graeco-Roman Egypt. Or maybe I did and I stored it away as an interesting byway of history (which it is!). Either way, an ancient Egyptian emerald mine sounded intriguing, especially as it turned out to be located at Wadi Gamal and Wadi Sikait (Jabal Sukayt) in the eastern desert, near the Red Sea. If you take the trouble to look on Google Maps, you'll see what an isolated and unfriendly environment it is.
It turns out we know quite a lot about this area from several sources. The first is a French explorer named Frederic Cailliaud (1787-1869), who was sent out to rediscover the emerald mines by the Ottoman ruler in 1816. I found Cailliaud an interesting man, because he not only travelled widely in Egypt and the Sudan, describing what he saw, but he was interested in everything, the plants, the animals, the culture, the history, the geology. His Voyage a l'oasis de Thebes and dans les deserts situes a l'orient et l'occident de la Thebes (Travels to the oasis of Thebes and the deserts east and west of Thebes) described the mines as, "perhaps a thousand excavations" with long underground causeways, wide passageways and even stairs. He also found a village of about 500 houses, basically intact, with "stone grinding mills still waiting for grain", fragments of vases “of beautiful form” made of both bisque and glass, ancient wells with brackish water …an entire town “hitherto unknown to all voyagers, which had not been inhabited, perhaps, for 2,000 years and almost entirely standing".
For many years, Cailliaud was dismissed as a fantasist who saw what he wanted to see, as many explorer types like him did. Most subsequent visitors said the mines were just open cut scratchings in the earth, apparently without actually going inside. Then, in 1951, a survey by the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority actually went into the complex of mines. The report said, "some mines are very elementary, the galleries are narrow and torturous... other mines are nearly perfect, walls...cleanly cut, shafts and levels were systematically dug, tunnels and wide and high that it is easy to walk through...steps were carved in some inclined tunnels." So it turns out that Cailliaud wasn't such a fantasist after all.
What about the intact village? Was there such a huge village near the mines? Cailliaud drew pictures of classical temples with intact facades. Surely he made those up? Well, no, it turns out he didn't. A US-Dutch team have been excavating in the area since 2000, mostly because these days, tourists can visit the site from the Red Sea towns. Where tourists go, sadly, damage follows, and so do archaeologists. It doesn't help that this area is geologically active as well.
The team reported, "Sikait, the southernmost of the three settlements and by far the most impressive, preserves at least two identifiable rock-cut temples." One of these temples includes hieroglyphs, Greek texts and a Christian cross. They mention the existence of other rock cut structures which haven’t been investigated yet. You can see modern images of the temple and the surrounding area here and here. A lot of damage has been done over the intervening years, especially to the façade, but you can see the basics of Cailliaud's illustrations are still there. The archaeological team has built temporary pillars from local stone to support the remaining structures, but they can't replace what's been taken away by visitors.
What the team found was the remains of a huge Roman-era industrial complex over several valleys. They found wells, the walls of buildings and the foundations of many more with doors, alcoves, and pantries, a settlement of several hundred structures with a beautiful temple to an unknown god. As well as arrowheads, coins and armour, they also found jewellery and toys, indicating that whole families lived there.
It must have been a tough place to live, though. The archaeologists reported that, in summer, there were days when their thermometer simply didn't go high enough to register the afternoon temperature and even in the winter, daytime temperatures were 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) and 30 degrees F (-1 degree C) overnight. There are traces of what were probably gardens, watered by the wells, though most food was probably brought in. And not all the miners had lovely wide galleries to work in.
So we're back to people again. I'm not quite sure how this will find its way into artworks, but I feel a sense of connection with those ancient people, the ones slaving away in the mines and the ones wearing the emeralds. We know enough about those wealthier women through mummy portraits, like this one in the British Museum, the life of Lollia Paulina and in the emerald jewellery found at Pompeii, to know that their lives could be just as tough and short too.
OK, enough now! Thanks for joining me on my emerald journey.