Tag Archives: Gemstones

Conference Proceedings: Gemstones in the first Millennium

Researchers from different fields like archaeology, history, philology and natural sciences present their studies on ancient gemstones. Using precious minerals as an example, trade flows and craftsmanship, but also utilisation and perception are discussed in a cross-cultural and diachronic approach. The present volume aims at three main questions concerning gemstones in archaeological and historical contexts: »Mines and Trade«, »Gemstone Working« as well as »The Value and the Symbolic Meaning(s) of Gemstones«.


This volume contains the proceedings of the conference »Gemstones in the first Millennium AD« held in autumn 2015 in Mainz, Germany, within the scope of the BMBF-funded project »Weltweites Zellwerk – International Framework«.

You can preview the table of content and a preface here.

Introducing the International Framework project

Dieter Quast and Alexandra Hilgner from the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (RGZM) in Mainz explain the initial questions of the project “Weltweites Zellwerk – International Framework” regarding the origin and development of garnet cloisonné jewellery in the early middle ages. Garnet gemstones from India arrived in a vast amount during the 6th century in the Merovingian kingdom in central Europe. In the 7th century, the cloisonné jewellery style was suddenly disappearing. Was it because of a change in fashion or did something happen to the former trade routes? The International Framework project, organised by the RGZM, the SAI Heidelberg and the LVR-LandesMuseum, Bonn with partners in Sweden, the UK and Hungary tries not only to find answers to these questions regarding the value and the meaning of the gemstone garnet, but also to understand the international trade and economic interactions in the “dark ages”.

Manufacturing and uses of backing foils – some technical experiments

Hello, I am Christiane Stempel, goldsmith, conservator and responsible for the technological examination of Early Medieval garnet objects that have been brought to the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz for scientific analyses within the project “Weltweites Zellwerk”.

During my work, I made some observations that raised questions regarding the manufacturing and the use of the patterned foils behind the garnets.

Fig. 1: Schematic figure of an Early Medieval garnet cloisonné (photo: RGZM/Ober)

Transparent stones were often underlaid with gold foils to reflect the light through the stone. This is particularly important when the stone is backed up with cement. In the Early Medieval period textured backing foils were used on a large scale. The three-dimensional pattern increased the reflective effect. I examined a great number of objects from different find-spots in Sweden, Anglo-Saxon England and the Rhineland and I found all the varieties of pattern commonly known from the literature such as standard waffle, boxed waffle (Varying in the number of enclosed squares [9 to 25]), ring-and-dot, lozenge, boxed lozenge and rectangle (stack bond). They only differ in fineness (number of lines/mm), depth of texture and contour sharpness.

Fig. 2 a-f: Foil pattern (RGZM/Stempel)


Unfortunately, the project nears its end and I would like to use the remaining time to carry out some technical experiments:

Producing the pattern

There are indications (see figures 3-7) that at least a number of foils weren’t manufactured with dies. It looks as if lines were traced immediately on to the foils to form the grid pattern.

Fig. 3: Buckle, Ailenberg, Württembergisches Landesmuseum Stuttgart A.V. III333 (photo: RGZM/Stempel)
Fig. 4: Disc brooch, Junkersdorf, Römisch-Germanisches Museum Köln 51,539 (photo: RGZM/Stempel)
Fig. 5: Disc brooch, Monsheim, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz O.15370 (photo: RGZM/Stempel)
Fig. 6: Disc brooch, Iversheim, LVR Landesmuseum Bonn 1960.667 (photo: RGZM/Stempel)
Fig. 7: Disc brooch, St.Severin, Römisch-Germanisches Museum Köln 50.286 (photo: RGZM/Stempel)

N. D. Meeks and R. Holmes described in their article “The Sutton Hoo Garnet Jewellery” an experiment with a scriber that they used to draw the lines directly onto the foils. But in their opinion, the result was not satisfying. (N. D. Meeks/R. Holmes, The Sutton Hoo garnet jewellery: an examination of some gold backing foils and a study of their possible manufacturing techniques. Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 4, 1985, 143-157.) I would like to pick up the idea again, but instead of a scriber I will do the work with a profiled hand-operated tool, comparable to a creaser. It is used until today in bookmaking and leather processing to imprint decorative lines onto a leather surface. In contrast to a pointed scriber the elongated working face of a creaser can be of any cross-section.

Fig. 8: Creaser (photo: RGZM/Steidl)


The theory that has to be verified in practice is as follows:  The grid pattern can be formed with a sliding forward motion of the tool, running it along a ruler with moderate pressure to form parallel lines, then rotating the workpiece by 90 degrees and repeating the action. For my experiments, I will use a small creaser-like tool that I have made by removing the cut of a square rifle file. As foil materials, I will use tin foil (0.03 mm) as well as sterling silver foils of different thicknesses (0,025 mm to 0,04 mm).

Using foil for stone securing

Not a small number of foils seem to have a further purpose: In many cases, the foils are trapped between the stone edges and the surrounding metal of the setting. Is it possible to hold a stone in place with the foil?

Fig. 9: Disc brooch, Hürth-Kalscheuren, LVR Landesmuseum Bonn XV (photo: RGZM/Stempel)

If times permits, I would like to produce a foil in the way outlined above using a fire-gilded silver foil. In the next few weeks, I will report about my experiments and I am curious about the results and your comments.


Featured image: Buckle, Endre socken, Statens Historiska Museet Stockholm 484:12, detail: garnet cloisonné with foils behind the garnets. (photo: RGZM/Stempel)

Gemstones and Gem Deposits of Sri Lanka – with special emphasis on Geology, Occurrence , Varieties and Mining.

Dr. Gamini Zoysa, Ceylon Gemmological Services

Sri Lanka has long been known as one of the world’s most important gem producing countries. Specially as a leading source for fine quality Blue Sapphires & its other varieties. The genesis of gemstones in Sri Lanka has been a subject for much discussion. The gems are mostly mined from the alluvial deposits underlain by Precambrian metamorphic rocks. The main gem bearing areas are confined to the geological division called highland complex which is located in the central part of the country. Over 3200 legal gem mines have been in active operation in the past years. The depth of the gem gravel in a shaft may vary from 10 to 25 meters. There are also evidences for occurrence of primary deposits of Sapphire, Moonstone , Aquamarine, Garnet within the island. In addition to the major commercially viable gem varieties such as Sapphires, Garnet, Chrysoberyl, Topaz, Zircon, Moonstone, Tourmaline, Beryl, Quartz there are over 80 varieties of nontraditional gems are recorded.

Dienstag, den 25. Oktober, 18.15 Uhr

Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum – Vortragssaal

Im Rahmen der Vortragsreihe “Weltweites Zellwerk”

See the full program here!


Foto: (c) http://www.aigsthailand.com

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).

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).

Gems and precious stones from the Bible to the Liber Pontificalis.

Their combination, colours and contexts.

Lecture held by Michelle Beghelli, Mainz

This paper aims to explore some lesser-known uses of gems, with a special focus on the Early Middle Ages (7th-9th centuries) and on liturgical contexts. In order to do so, the data conveyed by the written sources and the material evidence have been gathered and compared. The altar with its surroundings – the sanctuary – has been chosen as the underlying theme to approach the subject.  This was the most sacred area in a church, where only the clergymen were allowed to be, and where every object was highly charged with symbolic value. The gems used in this context have also their own allegoric meanings: in the Bible itself they are constantly mentioned, although they are associated with both the holiest and the most evil figures and things. Their “positive” symbolic connotations were, however, one of the main reasons why they were employed in decorating Early Medieval liturgical items – together of course with their ornamental value and their meaning as an indicator of the economic and political power of the Church –. The objects preserved in the museums and the written sources offer a rich documentation about the types and the combinations of precious stones which were used to this purpose. The scientific literature on chalices, patens, crosses, reliquaries, hanging crowns with gem inlays is abundant, and at times it has been possible to detect some ancient restorations. A little known written document, however, offers additional, precious information on how these restorations could be performed in the 9th century. The same source includes a small enigma about diamonds, for which a possible solution will be proposed. Other contexts of use of gems have also been little inquired, namely their employment in the stone liturgical furnishings (altars, chancel screens, etc.) and in the icons with depictions of saints. Despite the evidence is scattered, a collection of various pieces of information allows to shed light on these last aspects.

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).

The Color and Material of Greco-Roman Magical Gemstones

Lecture held by Christopher A. Faraone, Chicago

In the Roman Imperial period inscriptions and new iconography appear for the first time on gems manufactured in the Mediterranean basin that clearly indicate these gems are being used as magical amulets. In the past scholars have argued that such amulets are a completely new phenomenon and that they reflect the sudden onset of anxiety or superstition, in the latter case brought on by closer Greek contact with “oriental” societies.  I have just completed an entire book arguing against this approach and suggesting instead that the key changes were (i) people began to inscribe on the gems words that they previously spoke over them; and (ii) they introduced new images of powerful new Ptolemaic gods such as Harpocrates or Sarapis. There were, however, also some important technical changes in the gems themselves, because in the Roman period gem-cutters began to use cheaper opaque stones of various colors, such as chalcedony or jasper, and they began to favor flat surfaces that allowed them more easily to carve figures in intaglio and text. A change, for example, from a convex carnelian to a flat red jasper. Scholars have paid close attention to the correlation between images and text on these gems, but not always to their media and in my lecture today I would like to explore the reasons why certain colors and media become important as amulets in this period. One important feature of these stones is their uncanny properties. Certain stones, for example, made a strange sound when shaken, emit an odor when rubbed, attract iron or straw or otherwise seem to straddle the boundary between the organic and the inorganic – were singled out by the Greeks as powerful and were used as amulets. In my paper this afternoon I will focus on a handful of these stones and show how the Greeks – as they were wont to do — borrowed some of these stones from the Near East (especially Mesopotamia, by way of Persia) and in other cases invented their own traditions by turning organic amulets, for instance the eyes of green lizards, into green gemstones or the use of brownish gemstones inscribed with the image of a scorpion to ward off brown scorpions.

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).

Gemstones in Indian Religions

Lecture held by James Mchugh, Los Angeles

India and neighboring regions were the main sources of many gemstones in the Old World. Pre-modern Indian texts on gemology display a complex knowledge, both practical and mythological, of the origins, locations, properties, and evaluation of many types of gemstone. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism gemstones play a number of important and varied roles, from sanctifying the foundations of temples to constituting the building blocks of heavens. This paper introduces the mythological origins and supernatural potencies of the main gemstones as found in textual sources, and also presents an explanatory survey of the main religious contexts where gemstones were used. The paper will also consider the methodological difficulties in comparing textual sources with material finds.

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).

Foto: Carvings of strings of jewels from a 6th century CE cave at Badami India. (J. Mchugh)

Symbolism of precious stones in Byzantium

Lecture held by Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie, Mainz

Surprisingly, magic played an important part throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire, although it was a Christian state. Wide-spread representatives of the material culture of magic are amulets made from different materials, but prevailingly preserved in metal and stone. Most examples date from the Early Byzantine period (4th-7th century), however, later examples as well as written sources prove that amulets must have existed until the end of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. A great number was made of precious stone such as sapphire, emerald, agate, sardonyx, carnelian, jasper, amethyst or haematite. Their protective character was usually defined by a representation, e.g. of a demon or a figure defeating a demon. Beyond that, the material itself played an important role. We learn from written sources that magical properties and healing powers were ascribed to gemstones. One example is the amethyst, which was supposed to protect the wearer from insobriety (amethystos, Gr., ‘not drunk’). Byzantine writers such as Epiphanius of Salamis (4th century) or Michael Psellos (11th century) provide an insight into the magical properties ascribed to the stones which can vary depending on the source.

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).

Amber and beaver furs: Trade with raw material for the production of luxury goods

Lecture held by Dieter Quast, Mainz

This lecture compares two sorts of trade with raw materials. Though they are as well from very different regions as from different millennia it seems that they have something in common. Amber, being in fact a fossil resin and not a gemstone, was very valuable in the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder complained in the 1st century AD that a small figure of amber is as expensive as a slave. Natural scientific analyses had shown that the amber used in the Roman Empire was of Baltic origin and was traded as raw material. In Carnuntum c. 40km south-east of Vienna it crossed the Roman limes and followed the so called Amber Road up to Aquileia. There the workshops had been to produce the well-known little objects of art, a sort of expensive knick-knack. The existence of an Amber Road north of the Roman limes is often supposed, but not for sure. Also uncertain is how the trade was organised north of the Roman border in the Barbaricum.

Analysing some late pre-roman Iron Age deposits with over a tonne of raw amber in Silesia and comparing them with Roman imports from the south gave some insight into the contact zones. Silesia seems to be a sort of “middle ground”. This terminus was used to describe cultural contacts between the native Algonquian peoples and the French in the 17th/early 18th century in the Great Lakes Region. But the “middle ground” was also the background for the trade with beaver furs. And those furs had been a luxury good for Europe, where they have been used by hatters to make beaver hats.

Amber trade is documented mostly by archaeological source, beaver furs trade by written source. The comparison will allow to take a fresh look at the amber trade.

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).

Cross-cultural diamond and gemstone trade. The Armenian diaspora in Venice…

… and their global networks (1650-1750)

Lecture held by Evelyn Korsch, Venice

The lecture explores the Armenian diaspora in Venice, its activities in the Eurasian gem trade, and its worldwide commercial networks. Venice serves as the starting point because of its important role as turnover hub for trading and processing gems. Besides, it functioned as a gateway and connected markets in Italy with those in the Levant, Persia, and India as well as those in the Netherlands, on the German territories and in Russia. The Armenian diaspora in Venice who had its headquarters in New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, linked by its trade the Amber Road leading from Sankt Petersburg to Venice with the Silk Road running from China to the Mediterranean ports. Armenian merchants established a worldwide communication system providing their agents with updated information about market trends in order to maximise the profit of their commercial transactions. These agents operated within different networks in order to strengthen their activities. Their network system was based on wellbalanced mercantile strategies veering between cooperation and competition with both the East India Companies as well as other trading networks, like the Sephardic and Huguenot diasporas.

As the gem business was connected with high investments and therefore risks, it required special commercial and legal practices in order to reduce uncertainty. Moreover, crosscultural trade demanded particular skills of the agents who had to be able to move within transcultural interaction. Apart from geographic knowledge and language skills special trade practices were required which evoked a cultural exchange.

The study aims to contribute to a current discussion about the interaction between diasporas, trading networks, cultural exchange, and a globalisation of commercial relations in the Early Modern Time.

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).

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orlow_%28Diamant%29.jpg