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The History of Stretching

According to scientists, around 130,000 years ago, Neanderthals were making necklaces or other jewelry from eagle talons. Dr. David Frayer from the University of Kansas, along with folks from the Croatian National History Museum, found evidence of carving and polishing on the talons, and suggested they might have been strung together into a necklace using sinew.

Before that discovery, a set of hundred-thousand-year-old beads, made from shells, were the oldest jewelry every found.

But this is an article about stretching history, so why am I talking about Neanderthal eagle talons? Well, firstly, because I want to show how far back the wearing of jewelry goes: So far back that even other species of humans were doing it. And also because, come on, if they were wearing eagle talons around their necks, you know somebody was wearing them in their earlobes.

Right?

And today, the Massai in Africa are known not so much for wearing plugs, but for wearing beautiful decorative beads in their stretched lobes.

The problem, you see, is that one set of eyes look at a piece of jewelry and see one thing, and another set of eyes might see something completely different. I remember reading an anecdote about 19th century archeologists finding a bunch of Mesoamerican ‘earrings’ that were classified as such until the 1970s, when archeologists with a more modern outlook recognized them as septum jewelry.

New Kingdom Plug, 1300BCE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

Classification of jewelry can say as much about the person classifying as it does about the jewelry.

All I’m saying is that when we see beads and talons, we should keep an open mind about where, and how, they might have been worn.

The other reason it’s important to mention this stuff is because there’s a lot of debate around these issues. Was it really jewelry? Was it worn for decoration and no other practical purpose? It’s also important because soft tissue, like the earlobes, tends to not be there when you find a really old body.

One of the oldest still-fleshy bodies we’ve ever found was called Otzi, after the region he was found in. Otzi’s lobes were miraculously still intact, and stretched to between 7 and 11 millimeters. Otzi is thought to have been part of a copper culture that stretches back to the mid-fourth millennium BCE.

So we know that the oldest people we’ve ever found stretched their lobes, and there’s no telling how far back the practice goes. My instinct is to say that it almost certainly goes back as far as jewelry does, but without fossilized lobes, there’s no way to know.

Where do we pick up the trail again after Otzi?

New Kingdom calcite spiral 1500-1000BCE (Photo credit LACMA.org)

Ancient Egypt. The New Kingdom.

In the earliest civilizations, we know that there was body piercing because it’s mentioned in texts, shown in some remains, and it’s represented in statues. But for stretching specifically, we’re looking at Egypt, where there was a thriving tradition of ear stretching that spanned a millennium.

Serious lobes.

Take a look at these busts, of Tutankhamen (“King Tut”) and Horemheb, both of which show them with large stretched lobes. You can page through pharaoh after pharaoh and find images like these. It does make some people wonder: why no plugs?

It’s not because they didn’t have them. During this period of ancient Egypt, which spanned from about 2000BCE-1000BCE(That’s going by the jewelry, not the dynasties), there were massive quantities of large plugs produced from a material called faience. By large I’m talking 6 centimeters in diameter, a pretty serious stretch by today’s standards. It’s common to see statues of women wearing them, and they’re found in many women’s tombs (whose mummies also often preserved their stretched lobes). Plugs were also made of stone, bone, gold and electrum, depending on how fancy the person wearing them was.

Horemheb and his glorious lobes. (Photo credit Captmodo, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s thought that the practice of wearing plugs in the ears and earrings came to Egypt from either the Nubians – some of whom served as mercenaries in Egypt during this time – or from the Hyksos in Asia. It spread from Egypt through the Middle East, to civilizations like the Philistines, of Biblical fame.

And because I know you’re heard of bone, stone, and gold but might not have heard of faience, I’m going to tell you a little bit about that material which was all the rage in the 2nd millennium BCE.

Faience mold for making decorative seals (Photo credit LACMA.org)

Faience, in modern terms, is glazed pottery. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it’s the culmination of thousands of years of pottery technology. It requires not only a glaze that will harden almost to a stone-like consistency, but a powerful kiln.

Faience plug 1300 BCE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

In the ancient world, faience was made using a “frit” a kind of powdered pottery mix of quartz, copper, lime and flux. Heated up to a thousand degrees, this material produced a kind of glass-ish, pottery-ish finish. Depending on the ratio, you could get something sort of clear, or something opaque. It was so widely used because you could cast it or shape it however you wanted, and once fused it became a solid piece that was very durable (Some ancient faience has lasted until today, so you could say it’s durable).

Faience was in use from the 4000s BCE, but until the 18th dynasty the Egyptians weren’t using it for ear stuff, because they had just started wearing earrings and plugs.

Next week we’re going to hop to another civilization that was stretching around this period in Cyprus. Today, not many people know Cyprus, but in the ancient world, Cyprus was a major power, and their wealth, as demonstrated by some of their incredible gold jewelry, made them both famous, and a target for conquering.

Additional images:

Nubian carving with stretched spiral earring 1353 BCE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)
New Kingdom Spirals 1600 BCE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

This section of the History of Stretching is mind blowing for a lot of people, because we’ve been taught in the western world, particularly in modern times, that stretching is a “primitive” habit. It’s often associated unfavorably with cultures that were viewed as backwards and heathen, and used as an excuse for persecution.

What you’ll learn below, however, is that ear stretching was at the core of the ancient western nations that are now considered the height of “civilized”. The places that gave birth to architecture, philosophy, history, mathematics and democracy were also home to a lot of ear stretching.

For both men and women.

This is a Cypriot coil, made of solid gold, from 1600-1100 BCE. These coils were one of the major jewelry trends the Cypriots were famous for. (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

The Cypriots

The kingdom of Cyprus was small, even in its heyday, but it was highly influential in the ancient world. For many of the fashion trends that appear in this article, you’d be hard pressed to say whether they came to Cyprus from an outsider, or whether Cyprus exported their fashions to everyone else.

While people were living in Cyprus in villages as early as 10,000 BCE, it wasn’t until the Bronze Age that they really hit their stride. Cyprus had lots of copper. And since you need copper to make bronze, the Bronze Age was a sweet time for Cyprus. The ancient Egyptians sent literally tons of tin to Cyprus to have it combined with their copper to produce bronze.

This is another coil from 1600 BCE that I've included for comparison. Look how similar it is to the Egyptian coils below from a similar period. (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

Some of the most popular jewelry in Cyprus were coils worn through stretched lobes. I’ve posted several versions, and also a set of coils from ancient Egypt to show the widespread influence that Cypriots had during this period.

These coils, along with some thick gold, copper and silver rings, were worn by both men and women. The Cypriot stretching culture goes way back, to the mid-second millennium BCE, paralleling the development of stretching in ancient Egypt (Minus the giant faience plugs).

And in the 9th century BCE, the Cypriots’ style of earring wearing began to spread around the Mediterranean Sea to some of the neighboring countries of ancient Greece.

But we before we get to Greece, we have to visit one often forgotten powerhouse of the ancient world…

New Kingdom (Egypt) Spirals 1600 BCE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

The Etruscans

The Etruscans are like pre-Romans. Historians will probably read that sentence and tear their hair out, but I have a limited amount of space in these blogs, so I need to move on. The Etruscans are from northern Italy, and no one really knows how far back they go. Greek historians in the mid-first millennium BCE were talking about them, so they go back a long ways.

And a ton of the stuff we think of as Roman was actually passed down from the Etruscans.

This is an Etruscan earring from 1000 BCE. These big chunky rings were hugely popular in the ancient world. (Metmuseum.org. Of course)

Including lobe stretching.

Some of the most popular ear wear of the Etruscans in the 5th-3rd centuries BCE were these big, thick chunky gold earrings. Because there’s no way to translate Etruscan language, it’s impossible to say whether both men and women wore these earrings. But we can say that among the Greeks of this time, men were still wearing jewelry in some places, while in the later period, closer to the 3rd century BCE, it was mostly women and older men wearing jewelry in Greece.

This beautiful over the ear piece covered almost the entire ear. Some of these pieces have thin wires that went through the lobe, and some had posts, for something like a 3/8 inch stretch. (Photo MetMuseum.org)

The Etruscans flourished from the 700s BCE until around 264 BCE when they were officially conquered by the Romans. Although some doubt remains as to how involved they were in the founding of Rome, there is enough evidence to suggest that the Romans might have been conquered early on by the Etruscans and then split from them again later. One thing that is known from Roman history is that the Etruscans had their own swanky neighborhood in ancient Rome, and that they weredescended from kings, albeit Greek kings.

This solid gold ring is Etruscan, from 3rd or 4th century BCE. (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

The jewelry that we’ll see later in the early Roman period shows the heavy influence of Etruscan culture.

Look at this beautiful lion, from Greece, 5th century BCE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

The Ancient Greeks

Some of the most famous jewelry in the world came from ancient Greece. It was a center of history and literature in the ancient

world, so we know a lot about what went on there at the time, because folks were writing it down.

I’ve posted some Greek jewelry from the classical period, and here again they have these incredibly thick gold rings and spirals. I’ve also posted a pic of a terracotta sculpture of a woman’s face from the 5th century BCE sporting stretched lobes, and a really awesome lion earring made of white gold. The wearable on that lion is close to a half inch.

A 4th century BCE Greek spiral dragon design. You can see the incredible leaps that metalworking technology was going through during this time. (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

That the ancient Greeks practiced stretching is something that people are often surprised about (Or about the general spread of stretched lobes throughout the ancient western world, as we’ve seen). But it was incredibly pervasive, and a trend that was unisex for a while, and later became mostly limited to women.

Greek historians like Thucidides (5th century BCE) complain about the gaudy jewelry worn by “effeminate” and “old fashioned” older men, which is evidence of the change in tastes for that generation. That still leaves 400 years, from the 900s BCE until that period, where the jewelry was unisex.

It’s also important to note that in the ancient world, particularly among the Greeks, jewelry was a way to keep your wealth on you. It not only showed your status and your family’s status, it was a way for you to literally carry it around with you. That’s part of why the trend was for thicker looking gold jewelry. It’s also why a lot of the gold rings are hollow inside, because it made you look way richer than you were.

Gems and jewelry in general were also used for magical purposes during these periods. Warding off curses or securing blessings might have been an important part of your fashion sense, particularly if you were rich enough to wear some of these pieces.

5th century BCE statue, likely of a sphinx figure. Greece. (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

And here, the History of Stretching splits in two, because while there is still plenty of stretching to come in Western Europe, and quite a bit happening in India and Asia, there are a whole host of stretching cultures developing all on their own across the ocean, in the Americas.

 

This is an Olmec statuette from between 1500 and 300 BCE. (Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The South of the New world

I hate using a phrase like ‘the new world’ because that was its European name. The people who lived there just called it ‘the world’. But that makes for a confusing blog title, so I’m leaving it and moving on.

The Olmec

The Olmec were an incredible culture. They are considered one of only a handful of ‘cradles of civilization’ in the world, meaning a spot in the ancient world where a civilization just kind of grew up from nothing. (Archeologists will probably cry at that definition a little, but I have a word count limit, so I’m moving on.) They were the earliest people in South America to have cities, and their stone carving was next-level awesome.

They were a huge influence on all of the other cultures developing in Mesoamerica at the time, and their influence would be felt throughout the Maya, the Aztecs, the Mexica and everywhere else. They were great artisans with a lot of trade, and are famous today largely because they carved a bunch of really neat giant stone heads. These 20 ton heads were carved between 1500 and 1000 BCE and many are still standing today. And are a little creepy.

The Colossal Head of La Venta (Image credit: Michel Wal, Wikimedia)

We know the Olmec were stretching early, because their giant stone heads have giant stone plugs. The Olmec were probably the ones who got the Mayans started on the stretching train, as their artwork and jewelry were found in early Mayan burials, indicating that they were big trade partners.

I really can’t over-estimate how cool the stone carvings of the Olmec was for its time. At the end of the blog, I’m posting some random examples of their work that has nothing to do with stretching, but it’s really amazing for 1000 BCE stone work.

An infant figurine (They were really common among the Olmec for some reason) from 1200 BCE (Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Around 400 BCE, the Olmec suffered some kind of crisis, probably environmental, and their society declined heavily and eventually disappeared. New cultures arose in their cities a few hundred years later and took root.

The Olmec might have also independently come up with the idea of zero as a number, created the first writing in Mesoamerica, invented the famous ‘Mesoamerican ball game’, and the idea that kings, descended from gods, should be in charge of stuff. Aaaand maybe child sacrifice.

But aside from that, these guys were batting a thousand.

Mayan earflares, 3rd-9th century CE. (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

The Maya

The Mayan civilization stretches back to prehistory somewhere, but it pops up on the historical radar around 2600BCE. They never died out either. Today, millions of people still speak Mayan and live near the cities their ancestors once founded.

Around the time of the Mayan classical period (250-900CE), they had cities with populations over 100,000 people. That’s no Rome, but it gave places like Carthage and Syracuse a run for their money. (And during the latter part of that period, they were doing better than Rome, but Rome was having some troubles.)

Mayan plugs with characteristic large front flares. 550-850 CE (Image credit: LACMA.org)

It’s hard to say exactly how far back stretching goes in Mayan culture, but it safe to say that it goes back well into the second millennium BCE. The Mayans were great sculptors and left behind many clay figurines showing both men and women with stretched lobes. Later, towards the first millennium BCE, stone carved stelae and statues became a big part of city architecture. So you couldn’t walk down the street in an ancient Mayan city without seeing a carving of a king or a god with stretched lobes, wearing large flared plugs.

They had heavy trade with the Olmec, who were great stone carvers themselves. A lot of early Olmec jewelry, including ear flares, found its way into the Mayan empire via trade. Mayan ear flares were carved from many different kinds of stone, but the most prized stone among the Mayans was jade. Beautiful jade ear flares were buried with people to show their wealth.

This funerary mask from 683 CE shows how the composite earflares were worn on the outside of another piece of jade or wood worn through the earlobe, with a string and jade bead holding them in place from the back. (Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia)

Composite flares were particularly popular, where there was a piece that went through the stretched lobe, and then the wide flare attached to the outside for decoration.

Towards the end of the classical period, and into the pre-Columbian era, the Maya wore larger ear flares and added a decorative stick through the central hole. They also began wearing large pins through their septums and stretched labrets made of carved stone (possibly due to Mexican influence, as they invaded some Mayan cities during this time).

These are from the Chimu, post-Moche culture, made during the 12th-15th century CE (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

The Moche

The idea of kings ruling stuff did really well with the Mayans and the Aztecs, but the Moche were, like, not having any of that stuff, man. On the list of forms of government that didn’t make it, Loose Conglomeration of Polities has to be near the top. The Moche, also known as the ‘Early Chimu’ were a big thing in Peru.

The Moche were a bunch of cities with no over-arching government (As far as anyone can tell) but with a shared set of trade routes and culture and art that makes the cities seem like they were all kind of part of one civilization. They arose around 100 CE, and ran until about 800, when they morphed into the Chimu, and were later conquered, in the 1500s, by the Incas.

This is a Moche pipe from the 2nd-5th century CE, showing their fine stone work and large stretched lobes. (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

They were amazing goldsmiths. When you think of those beautiful solid gold earflares that people in South America were wearing that caused the Spaniards who saw them to blow all their gaskets, you’re thinking of the Moche, or the Chimu. And later the Incas. But it all comes from the Moche.

They weren’t the only ones doing it, but they were doing it really well. Their golden earflares would have been blinding in the sun, just huge disks of solid gold, some inlaid with precious stones, glaring like the rear window of the car in front of you when you’re in traffic. You know what I mean.

These are Sican, another post-Moche culture, made in the 11th-13th century CE (Image credit: Wikimedia)

Big. Gold. Circles. Gorgeous looking fine metalwork.

Their conquering by the Incas was bad timing, too. Because not long after, their conquerors were conquered themselves, by some folks from Spain.

A depiction of the Inca by Spanish artists. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

The Inca

The Inca showed up in Cusco around 1300 CE, pretty late in the game (And not too long before the game ended in 1572 with conquering and terrifying plagues that emptied the continent). They had big stretched lobes, bigger than even what you’d see in the Mayan or Moche cultures. They were depicted by Spanish artists, and in their own pottery, as having lobes that went nearly down to their shoulders.

These are solid silver plugs from the 15th century. In archeological documents, these are often called "ear spools". But they're plugs. (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

Ceremonial jars and sculptures show members of the Inca elite wearing both giant plugs in their ears, and leaving their lobes empty to dangle, so both of these were in fashion. The Inca were unisex when it came to stretching, with both men and women being depicted with stretched lobes.

This is an obsidian ear tunnel made by the Aztecs in the 15th century CE. It's so delicate that you can see through it. (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

The Aztec

In 1427 CE, a group of city states in what would one day be Mexico, banded together to fight a war against a couple of long-time rivals. Things went so well that an empire was the result. As to who wound up in charge, I’ll give you hint: The people in Tenochtitlan were called the Mexica.

Mexica, Mexico, you see where I’m going.

The Aztecs, like the Inca in Peru, figured out that age old civilization game changer of turning city-states into new cities in your empire via bigger army diplomacy. Also like the Inca, they figured this out just a hundred and fifty years before everything hit the fan and everyone was ravaged by disease and conquistadors.

We know from both their statues and the records of the Spanish that both men and women among the Aztecs stretched. They wore ear flares very similar to the Moche, but also wore some of the most delicately carved obsidian tunnels as well as larger plugs that are often called “ear spools”. Because they look sort of like spools.

This 15th century labret is solid gold, and a great example of the incredible metalworking of the Aztecs (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

They also wore beautiful and elaborate gold labrets, one of which I’ve posted a picture of. Look at the detail on that serpent. A similar piece was given as a gift by Cortez to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Unfortunately, most of these pieces were melted into gold ingots for transport.

The Aztec, as an empire, were toppled by Cortez in 1521, but the Mexica survived and their descendants live today in the country that still bears their name (Sort of).

The Aztecs wore both earflares like the Mayans and plugs like these. (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

And lastly, I know that the Aztecs could maybe have been included with the North, being north of the skinny spot between the continents, but come on.

I just didn’t feel like doing that.

Everyone Else

South America was full of civilizations large and small from 2600 BCE onward, with villages and city states from the mountains down to the river valleys. There are so many fascinating places that I’ve had to overlook here to save space.

 

This is a stretched lobe figuring from the Olmec, around 1000 BCE (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)
This is a Mayan statue from the 6th century CE showing some large stretched lobes. (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)
An Aztec figurine from the 15th century CE (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)
An Olmec stone 'yoke' dated to between the 10th and 4th century BCE (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)
An Olmec eagle figurine from the 10th-6th century BCE (Image credit: MetMuseum.org)

The Eastern World

This Byzantine earring is from the 6th or 7th century CE (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

The Eastern Roman Empire

Rome fell on some hard times. Barbarians at the gates. Usurping Generals taking over the Empire, etc. But before everything went haywire, Roman emperors toyed with the idea of splitting the empire in half, to make management easier. That’s how they wound up with co-emperors in the Eastern Roman Empire, in the city of Byzantium.

Then Rome falls. 5th century CE, Rome hits the bottom of its decline, and it’s basically over.

Then the Eastern Roman Empire did its own thing for another thousand years before falling to the Ottomans in 1453. That’s right. There were still Romans, after a fashion, far into the middle ages.

Around the 6th century CE, just after the fall of Rome, it becomes fashionable to wear these giant chunky gold earrings, with really thick hooks. I’ve posted images of some, and the gauge on these is easily a 6 or even 4 gauge size.

This is an Ostrogoth ear hoop, with a polyhedron shape that was very common for their jewelry. (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

At this point in Roman history, the tendency would have been for the jewelry to be worn by women, and not men, though the sight of men with stretched lobes in the Eastern Empire probably wouldn’t have been a surprise considering how close to Asia the empire was.That was, in fact, why Byzantium, and later Constantinople and later Istanbul were so important. The city that bore all those names and was the capital of so many empires was right in the middle of a bunch of trade routes.

This Parthian earring has a long chain that may have connected to another piercing. From the 2nd or 3rd century BCE (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

This “Byzantine” jewelry was incredibly influential for another 200 or more years, where it spread to civilizations in the west, like the Ostragoths, the Langobards and other groups that invaded parts of the western Roman empire after and during the final fall of Rome.

And since the Langobards went all the way north to Scandinavia, you could expect to see these types of earrings in places like Norway, Sweden, and Poland in the 7th century CE.

A Parthian Earring from the 1st century BCE. (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

Parthia (Modern day Iran)

Moving eastward from the Eastern Romans, we reach Parthia. You all know Parthia, right? Just kidding, I’m going to tell you about it. Parthia, aka the Arsacid Empire, was the main power in Iran and Iraq between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The Parthians had some run ins with the Romans in the first century CE (Which they totally won) and they’re mostly associated with Iran, because they adopted a lot of the ancient Iranian traditions, while still being heavily influenced by the Greeks.

It comes as no surprise then to see these earrings, which are so similar to the Hellenistic style worn by the Greeks a few centuries earlier (See part 1). The Parthians wore a very similar style, and while I can’t say whether both men and women wore these earrings during the span of the Parthian empire, I can say that the Hellenistic earrings were worn by both sexes as late as 5th century BCE, and the later jewelry of the Sasanian Empire in Iran was worn by both men and women, as evidenced by their coinage and statues.

As an awesome Iranian history bonus, check out this spread of Iron Age earrings with the huge thick rings. These are from the 9th-7th centuries BCE, really ancient Iranian relics. These would have predated the Achaemenid (first Persian) Empire by a little bit, and since earrings were worn by men and women during the Achaemenid Empire just a hundred years later, these were probably also unisex.

This is a piece from the 7th century BCE, Iran (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)
These are from the 9th century BCE, Iran (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)
Parvati, from the Chola period 10th century CE in bronze (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)
This is Hanuman, in 10th century CE, bronze (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

India

India has a tradition of stretching going back into the first millennium BCE, and continuing all the way through to the middle ages.

Here are some statues from the Chola Period (Between about 800 and 1200 CE) depicting Hindu gods, goddesses and saints with stretched lobes. These are part of the Tamil culture and you can see the amazingly large tunnels that were popular at the time. This style would have been influential not just through India, but also Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.

On the lower right hand side, I’ve included an image of one of the most beautiful pieces of Indian jewelry from the 1st century BCE. This earring style was very popular among royalty, and is solid gold. What you’re seeing is just one earring, very similar to a large twist style weight, that would have been worn hanging in a much larger stretched lobe. Not many pieces like this exist, despite their popularity, because they were often melted down to prevent the karma of the previous wearer being transferred.

This is a single earring, from the 1st century BCE (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

India Bonus!

I can’t talk about India without mentioning one of the most famous stretched lobe having people in the history of the world: Siddhartha Gautama, AKA the Buddha. He lived sometime around the 5th century BCE and had huge stretched lobes. In statues of him, the lobes hang loose, often down to his shoulders. The story goes that as a wealthy prince, Siddhartha wore expensive plugs in his lobes, and when he gave all that up

to follow the path of enlightenment he threw them away, leaving his lobes empty. Depicting the Buddha with stretched lobes is actually part of the iconography of Buddhism, and can have many different spiritual interpretations. Interestingly, in Mahayana Buddhism, which is popular across Asia, the Bodhisattvas who have achieved enlightenment are also depicted with stretched lobes, even though they may come from other cultures.

This thick earring style was popular for both sexes during the Kofun Period, 7th century CE (Photo credit: MetMuseum.org)

The appearance of some later buddhas (with a small ‘b’) might include very large earlobes that aren’t stretched, but simply appear abnormally large because they are influenced by this idea.

Just because we’re on the subject and I know you’re wondering, what about the guy in BAF’s own iconography up there in the corner? That guy is often referred to as the Fat Buddha, or Chubby Buddha, but he’s not a well fed version of Siddhartha Gautama. He’s actually a 10th century Chinese monk named Budai or Hotei. He’s enlightened, but he’s not the capital ‘B’ Buddha.

Ear stretching in India was practiced by both men and women (and gods and goddesses too).

These are plugs from the Jomon period in Japan, between 3000 and 1500 BCE. (Photo credit: Museum of History and Folklore, Saitama)

The Jomon and Kofun Cultures (Japan)

Japan actually has an exceptionally long history of ear stretching, with earthenware plugs of the Jomon people going back into the 2nd millennium BCE. In later Jomon periods, the plugs might be made of carved antler, and tended to have a hole through the middle.

No one can really say how far back the ear stretching goes in this culture, but the Jomon culture itself goes back to 14,000 BCE.

This Javanese ear twist is from the 3rd-10th centuries CE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

Stretched lobes in statues and paintings were common in Japan throughout the country’s history, due to the influence of Mahayana Buddhism. Not only the Buddha himself, but sacred figures in the religion known as Bodhisattvas were also depicted with stretched lobes, so it would be very common to enter a Buddhist temple and see a row of statues all depicting long lobes.

Some paintings from the Kofun period depict men wearing the large bronze rings in their stretched lobes that were very popular at the time. They are depicted as being worn much more like weighs, rather than having a tight fit in the lobe. Some of these pieces that I’ve included in the side bars are from the 7th century, putting them in the Kofun period, and they could be quite sizeable, up to about six millimeters for the actual wearable size.

A Javanese ear weight from the 8th century CE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

Java

The Javanese culture goes back more than 3,000 years, and stretching is a huge part of it. Today, Java (the place) is a province of Indonesia, and plenty of stretching still goes on there in the modern era.

Back in the day, during the first millennium CE, the Sanjaya and Shailendra dynasties – which did not always get along – both enjoyed ear stretching, and the practice was common for both men and women. Carvings and statues from the time show people with long stretched lobes, sometimes almost shoulder length, wearing both plugs and weights. The pics you see in the sidebar are a good example of the kind of jewelry often worn, and you can see the similarity between the twists here and the 1st century twists worn in India. Both Buddhism and Hinduism had heavy influence here, and both brought ear stretching with them.

In the 13th century CE, Islam became a big part of Javanese culture too, and many of the later Sultanates would incorporate large ear decorations for both men and women (One notable style in the 1300s was to wear pointed ear toppers that resembled golden elf ears) and also very long earrings.

A gold plug from the 10th to 15th century CE (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

The Majapahit Empire, which ruled a chunk of Javanese Indonesia from the 11th to the 14th century CE also depicted extensive ear stretching and wearing of plugs, in both statues and in terracotta decorations that lined rooftops and included both male and female figures that were often part of a continuous narrative story told on each roof.

It’s important to remember that the Javanese people were part of, and ruled, many different kingdoms and had a blend of religions and influences, and they still do today. It’s also notable that bronze statues dating back to the first millennium BCE often depict warriors and religious ascetics with stretched lobes.

These Sanxingdui masks are from between 2050 and 1250 BCE (Photo credit Yang, Wikimedia)

China

The Sanxingdui Culture

During China’s bronze age, around the 12th century BCE, a culture was flourishing in the city of Sanxingdui, in what is now Sichuan, China. Not much is known about the people who lived here, since the sites were first discovered in the twentieth century, and there isn’t a lot of history to draw from, but the people of Sanxingdui were connected with the ancient Chinese kingdom of Shu.

Second millennium BCE masks, Sanxingdui (Photo credit Momo, Wikimedia)

Even though they were around at the same time as the Shang dynasty, and both places worked in bronze, the Sangxingdui had a different method of bronze working from the Shang, and it differentiates a lot of their artifacts.

They were also really into masks. The two that I’ve posted here are from the second millennium BCE and you can see the clear indications of stretched lobes built into the masks. Because there isn’t much to go on historically for these people (They aren’t mentioned in a lot of texts until a thousand years later when their ancestors were conquered by the Qin dynasty in 316 BCE) it’s unknown whether the stretching was unisex, or if it was limited to men.

A Jinsha mask made of gold, 1250-650 BCE (Photo credit Wikimedia)

The Jinsha Culture

The Jinsha are basically a later version of the Sanxingdui. The city, called Jinsha by modern archeologists, is named after the river nearby. The Shu government moved their capital there around 1250 BCE. They flourished until 650 BCE, when something went haywire and political power shifted to another area. In the meantime, they managed to make the mask pictured on the left with stretched lobes. They, like the Sanxingdui before them, were way into masks.

They were also master goldsmiths, so while the earlier masks were bronze, this guy is solid gold. They also worked extensively in bronze, jade, ivory and carved stone. A number of other objects from the site depict men with pierced and stretched lobes, including masks and terra cotta statues.

Because the masks and statues most often found are male, it’s again hard to say whether the stretching was unisex. I have yet to find evidence of women doing it, so it may just have been for men.

This is a painted jar from the Siwa culture dating to 1500-1300 BCE (Photo credit Prof. Gary Lee Todd, Wikimedia)

The Siwa Culture

The Siwa culture was just south of the border of Mongolia, in what is now northern China. They flourished from about the 14th-11th century BCE, after which no one seems to know what happened to them. Another culture that’s sparse in the history department, the Siwa are said to possibly be descended from the Qijia (2200-1600BCE) who lived in the same area, or possibly the Di culture, also called the Five Barbarians who were non-Han Chinese (So an ethnic minority, basically) who ran roughshod over northern China during one of the periods when China was divided up and everyone made war with everyone else.

Bronze man, Ordos culture, 1st century BCE (Photo credit PHGCOM, Wikimedia)

The Ordos Culture

Most historians think these guys were basically the eastern branch of the Scythians, a group of kind of European, kind of Indian nomads. They flourished in what is now Mongolia during the 6th-2nd centuries BCE, and are mostly famous for bronze items that they put on a lot of stuff, just like the western Scythians did. Their style of sticking bronze decorations on tent poles, pins, and little plaques you could wear or sew onto clothing, continued even after the Qin and Han dynasties conquered them in the 2nd century BCE.

These beautiful ear weights are from the 15th century CE, or earlier (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

One of their plaques is shown on the right, and you can see the plugs that guy is wearing there. Large earrings were also worn by the Scythians in the west as evidenced by their statues.

At various points in their long history the Scythians and related steppe cultures spread from eastern Europe all the way into Mongolia. So they bridge cultures all the way from the Greeks, who they traded extensively with to the northern Chinese, through Persia and India. In other words, there’s no telling where they got their unique style, or who they might have influenced, but both men and women in the culture were known to wear similar clothes and decorations, so the stretching among them was probably unisex as well.

First century BCE burial jars from the Philippines (Photo credit Traveler on Foot, link to his blog below)

The Philippines

Filipino culture is one of the most ancient in the world, and a good bit of scientific debate about the origins of the Filipino people is still going on. What is known that that there were people inhabiting the islands 70,000 years ago. It’s likely that these people were displaced around 4000 BCE by some folks from Taiwan, and genetics research suggests some mixing of peoples in the process.

Fast forward, and we find an Asian culture with extensive trading, and therefore influence, from all over Asia. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all made their way to the Philippines over time.

Stretching in the Philippines was unisex, with men often getting two or more piercings in the ears for different sizes of jewelry, and women getting four or more in each ear.

The process was to pierce the ear of an infant with a copper needle, and hold the piercing open with a clean thread. Once healed, bamboo or other wood spacers were used to slowly stretch until there was a gap big enough to fit your pinky in, and from there on out rolled leaves were used to stretch until the lobes were quite large. Depictions of Filipino women made by the Spaniards in the 1600s show women with lobes that are stretched at least an inch if not twice that, and it was said that the larger the stretch, the more beautiful a woman was thought to be.

Many of the most beautiful gold work comes from the 10th-13th centuries, with both plugs, called pamarang, and large gold loops called dalin-dalin being worn by men and women throughout the era.

Statues and anthropomorphic burial jars dating back to the first century BCE, show stretched lobes clearly on both men and women, and indicate that this trends goes back quite a ways into antiquity. The jars were used to house bones once the body had completely decomposed, with each jar having a lid that closely approximated the person in life in a sort of exaggerated way, like a caricature.

Also worth noting is the fact that when the Spanish explorers arrived in the Philippines, they found the gold work being done there to be absolutely masterful, far better than what they had at home. The Filipino gold work from this period is thought to be second to none in Asia, and they had a complex system of valuation for different alloys, made by blending metals like copper and tin with gold. It was an art they worked so well that the Spanish said it would easily fool goldsmiths in Madrid into thinking the piece was solid gold.

 

Notes:

I had a really hard time finding images of the Filipino burial jars, so this is a special thanks to Traveler on Foot (https://traveleronfoot.wordpress.com/) who goes around the world taking pictures of things for his blog and let me use them for this entry. He easily has the best pictures of these jars on the net. He also has a lot of other cool pictures, so check him out :)

Stone plugs worn by Copts (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)

Africa

Can you talk about ear stretching without talking about Africa? Well, you can, and I have. But I couldn’t possibly call this series finished without touching on the cultures and civilizations in Africa that have stretched their lobes over the millennia.

To begin with, it’s important to understand how ancient and diverse Africa is. Technically, we’ve already talked about Africa some in Part 1 of this series, where we talked about Egypt and Nubia. It’s hard to overestimate the global influence that ancient Egypt has had, particularly with regards to jewelry, where I think the Egyptian style of stretching lobes has permeated through many African cultures over the centuries. Also, I’ve already written a blog about one culture, in my story of the Maasai and their stretched lobes. The list that I’m presenting here is not exhaustive, and certainly not complete, but I wanted to get as many cool African cultures in as I could.

Another sweet Coptic plug (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)

The Coptic Christians

Pictured to the left and right are some great images of plugs worn by Coptic Christians over the centuries. It’s hard to say exactly what era these plugs were from, but the earrings of the 5-7th century CE Copts in Egypt indicate that stretching was going on during that time. Those earrings also show the heavy influence of the Byzantine culture on Egyptian Christians.

This is a Coptic piece from the 5-7th century CE (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)

The stone plugs, however, are from Ethiopia and were acquired by the British Museum in 1894, and might be as recent as that, although my research into both art and photography of Coptic Christians in the Middle East don’t suggest that they were widely stretching during the 19th century.

These plugs are 20th century, from the Chuka culture (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)

Coptic Christians are the largest Christian group in the middle east, and they’ve actually been there for almost as long as there have been Christians. St. Mark visited Egypt around 42 CE, and started converting folk, and when he left there was quite a community there. Fragments of Christian documents dating back to the 2nd century also support the idea of a thriving church in Egypt at that time. Ethiopia was, during the middle ages, considered to be one of the locations of the famed Christian Kingdom of Prester John, which turned out to be little more than a legend (Although there was a Christian dynasty on the throne there).

Today, Coptic Christians can be found across Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya where they make up a sizeable chunk of the population.

This is 20th century, from the Taia culture (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)

Kenya

Kenya has been inhabited since forever. There were prehistoric cultures there two million years ago, Homo habilis and Homo erectus were there duking it out until we came along, and during the stone age there was a thriving community of Homo sapiens, aka Us. But in more modern times, like since we started writing things down, Kenya has been home to diverse groups, ranging from the Samburu and Maasai (5th to 1st century BCE to present) to the Swahili (1st century CE to present) to the Sultanate of Zanzibar. The Bantu, who moved in around the 1st millennium CE, comprised of a dozen different ethnic groups like the Meru, Kikuya, and Ambeere.

20th century, Pokomo culture, Kenya

I mention this so that when you look at the pictures of all the cool plugs from Kenya, and each one has a different culture attached to it, you can understand just how diverse this nation is.

Today, Kenya is a thriving nation, home to the city of Nairobi, a metropolis of 3.3 million people, and Mombasa at 1.2 million.

20th century Tanzania (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)
This piece was made by the Ngoni people of Malawi, 20th century (Photo credit British Museum Collection Online)

Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi

A ton of these pieces belong to the Swahili people, a prominent ethnic group on the east coast of Africa (Often called the “Swahili coast”). They number about 500,000 people and are part of the Bantu peoples, which includes something like 600 ethnic groups.

They are primarily Muslims, since the 9th century, and many forms of Muslim dress are popular among the Swahili. It’s not unusual for their jewelry to contain verses from the Quran or literal pages taken from the Quran. Many of their plugs show the strong influence of the Islamic style of jewelry seen in Egypt during the middle ages and bears a resemblance to the jewelry of Morocco with its fine metalwork.

Morocco, from the 19th-20th centuries (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

Because of their extensive trade with Indian, Arab and Persian merchants around the 10th century CE, the Swahili people began living in a series of city states across a wide swath of the east coast of Africa. They connected the raw good of Africa with traders in nations all over the east.

Earlobe stretching is practiced by both men and women in Swahili cultures, and different kinds of jewelry can be used to indicate different social statuses. Many plugs I found were specific to married men or women, while single people would wear something different.

The Swahili city states were active throughout the middle ages, and were hurt badly by the Portuguese, who took control of the trade in the 15th century. The language Swahili is still widely spoken, and members of the various Swahili sub-groups are still sizeable chunks of the population in countries all over the east coast of Africa.

Another Moroccan piece, from the 19th-20th centuries (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

Morocco

The Moors of Morocco had some of the most beautiful earrings you’ll ever see in the early 20th century. I’ve put pictures of several on the sidebars so you can get a look at them. They’re made of silver, and intricately worked.

If you have a few minutes, you can search Google for the works of José Tapiró y Baró from 1907 and see the incredible paintings he did of Moorish men and women from that era. One of the things that his work denotes pretty clearly, aside from the beauty of these people and their amazing jewelry, is that the stretching in this culture was largely limited to women. Some of these pieces in the sidebar aren’t even as thick as the ones in Baró’s paintings, so there was some serious stretching going on.

These are Islamic pieces from 17th century Morocco (Photo credit MetMuseum.org)

The term Moor is a bit of a misnomer, since the people themselves were not called that within their own culture, it’s a term that basically denotes someone who is Muslim and of African descent, although even that’s not a perfect definition. But it would have been what they were traditionally called by outsiders in Europe during this time, and when Googling, it’ll help you find some cool images of them if that’s what you’re into (And you should be, because they’re awesome)

Islam in Morocco goes back to the 7th century CE, when a group of Umayyad invaders brought it in with them. After that, a bunch of different Islamic dynasties were founded that united and controlled the region around Morocco, and today Islam accounts for 99.9% of the population’s religious affiliations.

Most of the jewelry you see here is from the last 200 years or so, and seems to have died out as a style in Morocco in the early 20th century.