Of all of the depictions of deities from Roman Britain, finger ring intaglios offer some of the greatest variety, but are also perhaps the easiest to overlook. These miniature works of art were extremely portable, cost effective to trade across large distances, but also easy to lose. The distribution of their findspots has therefore not typically been seen as a reliable indicator of the spread of religious belief. After all, a finger ring could easily slip off the finger while working, or as seems to have been the case at the baths at Caerleon, hot water could make the intaglio come loose from the ring itself. Apart from where they are discovered in a specifically religious context (for example the quantities found at Bath), the find of an intaglio depicting a specific deity cannot automatically be said to represent the worship of that deity in that vicinity, or even that the original wearer particularly venerated that deity. Some images may have become fashionable to wear at different times and may reflect these changes rather than individual religious devotion. Intaglios were desirable antiquarian finds in the 18th and 19th Centuries, brought back from Grand Tour excursions, and often re-set into contemporary jewellery. Such later examples can influence the ancient archaeological record.
Research into some specific ring types, however, has begun to demonstrate that finds distributions can reveal much about social practices and may not always represent accidental losses. Work by Dr Adam Daubney on a series of fascinating rings known as ‘ToT rings’ has shown their distribution to focus primarily on Lincolnshire. These rings have the inscription ‘ToT’ (or a variation thereof) inscribed into the bezel, which relates to the Gaulish war deity Totatis (or Toutatis). Adam’s research has led him to suggest that the rings were not casual losses, but deliberately placed into the ground as offerings.
It is to another series of rings with consistent imagery that I wish to now turn – those bearing images of the Roman god of metalworking Vulcan, perhaps most clearly seen in the example above. Only eight are currently known from Lincolnshire (including one just over the modern political county boundary at Newark, but close enough to be considered here), but they form a very interesting group. Many Roman ring intaglios have their designs carved into semi-precious gemstones such as carnelian or jasper, but these Vulcan intaglios are all cast or stamped in gold (six intaglios) or silver (two intaglios). Of the eight, four are still sited within their rings. The table at the bottom of this post details each ring and its current location.
The imagery on the rings is consistent, with the possible exception of the Owmby example, of which more below. Vulcan stands in his forge, wearing a wide brimmed hat and a one-shouldered tunic, identifying him as a craftsman. In his right hand he holds a hammer over an anvil, and in his left a pair of long metalworking tongs. Although the quality of the individual intaglios varies, the main image is easily identifiable.
This consistency is highlighted by two intaglios in particular, the one from Newport, Lincoln and ‘Rothwell 2’, which are so similar that it is likely that they were the product of the same die, despite being discovered c.18 miles apart. Might the intaglios be the product of a single workshop somewhere in Lincolnshire?
The distribution of the rings is of particular interest, as half of the known examples come from a single site, that of Rothwell Top just south of Caistor on the northern Lincolnshire Wolds. I’ve mentioned this site in previous posts (for example, here and here) as one of great interest – a multi-period site including a late Iron Age and Roman shrine, finds from which have included an important assemblage of miniature shields and weapons. In this context, the suggestion that the intaglios represent accidental losses seems unlikely. The area is one at which the large scale extraction of ironstone occurred between the mid 19th Century and the 1960s, and the presence of the valuable mineral is likely to have been known about in the Roman period. Were these rings with images of the god of smithing offered at the shrine by miners or metalworkers to ensure the continued presence of the local metal ores? Were the rings/intaglios placed in the ground to act as a substitute for the mineral being extracted? This theory does not account for the finds at Lincoln, Newark and Brant Broughton, but these may represent casual losses or deposition at other places associated with metalworking processes.
The intaglio from Owmby differs slightly in its imagery. It was discovered in 1978 along with a plain silver ring, a pair of gold heptagonal earrings and the head of a glass pin, interpreted at the time as forming a small, deliberately buried hoard. Vulcan holds a pair of long tongs in his left hand but the right hand does not hold a hammer over an anvil, instead appearing to be holding a small skeletal figure. Catherine Johns (1980) suggested a possible parallel in Etruscan gems depicting Prometheus making a human, though admitted that this would be unlikely on a late Romano-British example. The clothing of the figure and the tongs suggest that Vulcan is still the depicted deity, but the image remains unusual and may be a hybrid. It certainly does not come from the same stylistic school as the other examples, and is a thin repoussé sheet rather than a thicker intaglio. It perhaps represents the product of a different workshop entirely.
The intaglios are difficult to date in themselves, but the ones still set into rings can be placed into a wider chronology. Three of the four surviving rings are of the same type, known as Henig XI (Henig 1974), and date to the 4th Century. The entirely gold ring (‘Rothwell 1’) has been re-shaped following its discovery, but is also believed to date to the 4th Century. Johns (1980) suggested that the Owmby group dated to the 4th Century, based on the form of the silver ring in that assemblage. It would appear, then, that both the production of the rings and their deposition all reflect later Roman activity.
One other depiction of Vulcan is known from Lincolnshire, and is worth mentioning here. It is in the form of the torso of a copper alloy statuette, discovered in 1998 and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. An illustration of it can be seen below, the short one-shouldered tunic identifying the figure as Vulcan. The statuette was discovered at Barnetby le Wold, c.6 miles north of Caistor, and may reflect a votive deposition similar to that suggested with the rings at Rothwell Top.
Table of Lincolnshire Vulcan intaglios
Henig, M. 1974. A Corpus of Roman Engraved Gemstones from British Sites. British Archaeological Reports 8
Johns, C. 1980. A group of late Roman jewellery from Owmby-by-Spital, Lincs. Lincolnshire History and Archaeology Vol 15
Marshman, I. J. 2013. Four finger rings and an intaglio from East Field. In Wills, S. ‘The Roman Roadside Settlement and Multi-Period Ritual Complex at Nettleton and Rothwell, Lincolnshire’