All posts by lisbetthoresen

Archaeogemology and ancient literary sources on gems

Lecture held by Lisbet Thoresen, Temecula, CA

Archaeology and discoveries of new gemstones and new gem sources in recent decades attest to the need for critical review and updating of literature in translation concerning gems of the ancient world. The origins and identities of gemstones used in ancient glyptic have been inferred almost exclusively from literary descriptions available in secondary or even tertiary sources after now-lost ancient original texts. To date, no epigraphical or philological study has verified the ancient gem cutters’repertoire of materials against empirical gemological examination of extant material in public or private collections. However, such objective data should improve interpretation of literary source material that is often fragmentary or contains descriptions fraught with lexical ambiguities and contradictions. A carefully qualified perspective is needed. Whether in original form or in translation, manuscripts, from antiquity to the present day, reflect some degree of current knowledge about geography and gems in the contemporary world of the author/epigrapher/translator. Contemporary knowledge attributed to earlier cultures is an unwitting bias that frequently eludes both translators and scholars. Together with critical examination of the imprint of authorial bias, a gemological review of extant material is discussed in relation to the important treatises on gemstone nomenclature, identity, and geographic origin.

Lecture held during the conference “Gemstones in the first Millennium AD. Mines, Trade, Workshops and Symbolism.” October 21st, 2015 at the Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz (Germany).