Gemstones in pre-Islamic Persia: Selection and meaning of material and shape of Sasanian seals

Lecture held by Nils Ritter, Berlin

One of the most common class of artefacts of pre-Islamic Persia are gemstones, which were used as seals as well as jewellery. So far, almost 10.000 seals from the Sasanian period are known, whereas few material is known from the preceding Parthian period, yet.
Centred in Persia, the Sasanian dynasty ruled from the Euphrates to the Indus, holding a position of supremacy for more than four centuries (from AD 224 to 652). Their gemstones respectively seals have had the highest geographical and social distribution of all known periods of pre-Islamic Persia.
The Sasanians chose colourful gemstones of different shapes, predominantly made of microcrystalline varieties of quartz. They stand out in the art of seal-cutting of the late ancient world not only for their quantity and distribution, but also in the character of themselves: this class of artefacts is significantly standardized in material, colour, shape, imagery, style and cutting techniques.
In the present paper, I will focus on the selection, background, and meaning of the materials, the colours and the shapes of Sasanian seals in order to present the traditional and innovative values of this class of material culture.

Lecture held during the conference “Gemstones in the first Millennium AD. Mines, Trade, Workshops and Symbolism.” October 22nd, 2015 at the Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz (Germany).


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