Stories from stones – Roman gems lecture

Its been an excellent week for Roman lectures here in Lincoln, with the Lincolnshire Archaeology Day at the weekend, and now Dr Ian Marshman’s excellent lecture to the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology. Speaking on the subject of Roman signet rings and their intaglios, Ian took his audience on a fascinating and enthusiastic journey through the function, subject matter and antiquarian interest in these smallest of artistic depictions.

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Intaglio of Ganymede. Victoria and Albert Museum

Based on his PhD research, which saw him study c.2,000 gems in 100 museums across the UK, Ian began by discussing some of the problems with the study of intaglios, particularly that their popularity as an item of antiquarian interest led to many losing their provenance and travelling far from their original contexts during the Grand Tour and later. The focus on them as miniature artworks has led to their original use as practical items being overlooked, and the rings they were attached to, an intrinsic element of their study, being lost.

After looking at the technical distinctions between cameos and intaglios, Ian turned to the use of seals to secure not only documents (see my earlier post on seal boxes here for more on this) but also objects such as wine jars and even spaces such as rooms and entire houses. His reflection that such sealing was a social contract is one that I particularly liked – the seal doesn’t stop anybody from accessing the secured contents, but the owner will know that it has been accessed, and in that social construct lies the deterrant.

Sealing methods differed across the empire, due in large part to climate.  Soft clay was more common for sealing papyrus documents in the Mediterranean, demonstrated by an amazing survival of a slave contract in the British Library with seven clay seals at the top, dating to AD166. In northern provinces, wax was a preferable material for accepting the seal impression, as evidenced by a seal box with red wax surviving, found at Augusta Raurica, near Basel, Switzerland.

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Papyrus contract for the sale of a slave boy, with seven seals at the top. British Library

Ian then explored the social status of signet rings, elite objects often of great material value. The gems used for intaglios – such as jasper, carnelian and garnet – were the hardest materials that could be carved in the ancient world, and would have been more valuable then they are deemed today. Signet rings were an outward sign of literacy and status, as reflected in the wearing of a signet ring on the bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus at Herculaneum. Women did wear signet rings, but they were primarily masculine items at a time when the wearing of other types of jewellery was not seen as a maculine activity. Ian’s comparison of them to modern expensive men’s wristwatches was an apt analogy.

Ian then began to explore the variety of wonderful imagery to be found on intaglios across Britain, from warriors holding severed heads (Dragonby), signs of military conquest with capricorns surmounting globes (Waddon Hill) and eagles and standards (Great Casterton). Particularly fascinating examples include a rather poor quality intaglio of an eagle and military standards buried beneath the turf Hadrian’s Wall at Birdoswald, perhaps a foundation offering from a soldier, and the gold ring with an intaglio of grapes with human faces (probably Bacchic in origin) found at Leicester’s Jewry Wall baths by the great archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in the 1930s. The circumstances of accidental loss was highlighted through the enormous assemblage discovered at the legionary baths at Caerleon, where it is thought that the hot waters may have loosened the glue holding intaglios in place, leading to them being lost in large numbers. That the most common image was Mars tells of the religious priorities of the soldiers who originally wore them.

The growth of Christianity was revealed through ring imagery, including a 3rd Century motif of an anchor and fish from Binchester – one of the earliest Christian objects yet known from Britain. Later Roman rings changed in nature and gem engraving fell out of favour in the 3rd Century, perhaps as such a luxury was no longer practical in a time of political and economic turmoil. Instead, ring designs were carved directly into the metal of the ring bezel. Christian motifs become more common at this time.

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Late Roman ‘Brancaster type’ gold ring from Gosberton, Lincolnshire, with a Christian motif of a dove and palm branch. NMS-AF4E73

This hugely enjoyable lecture certainly opened my eyes to aspects of intaglios I hadn’t considered before, particularly their roles in defining gender and social status, and I’ll never look at these tiny artworks in quite the same way again.

You can follow Ian Marshman on twitter @IJ_Marshman.

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