Tag Archives: Historic Sources

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).

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).

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).

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).

Fatimid rock crystal carving techniques (10th -12th century AD)

Lecture held by Elise Morero, Oxford

The Fatimid caliphs of the 10th- to 12th-century C.E. are well known for their patronage of luxury arts, especially carved rock crystal vessels, although the manufacturing techniques employed in their production remain largely unknown. The processes of Fatimid rock crystal carving were investigated using a multidisciplinary method based largely on: the observation at various scales of the manufacturing traces on the surface of the objects; tribological analysis; the analysis of archaeological and ethnographic data; and also experimental reconstructions of ancient techniques.
These complementary methods enabled us to identify the techniques and tool-kit used by Fatimid craftsmen. The hardness of rock crystal (Mohs scale 7.0), together with its homogenous crystalline structure, makes the use of percussive tools inefficient. Instead, the crystal must be ground away using an abrasive powder and a lubricant. The mixture was carried to the surface of the crystal using different tools put in motion by a horizontal bow-lathe. It was determined that a particularly famous group of seven ewers was produced by a few specialised workshops, probably located at Fustat (Old Cairo), in about the year 1000 C.E. 11

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: Fatimid rock crystal ewer (Francis Mills ewer – Keir Collection, Dallas Museum of Art)

The red garnet industry in contemporary Rajasthan

Lecture held by Borayin Larios, Heidelberg


India has become increasingly difficult. Historically believed to be a key zone for the extraction or red garnet, Rajasthan has now allegedly become a second choice for the gemstone manufacturers from Jaipur. Stake-holders in the production of gemstones presumably procure the majority of garnet rough from African countries such as Tanzania, Madagascar and Zambia, and occasionally from other parts of India, mainly from the state of Orissa.  In the fall of 2014, I ventured to look for red garnet (almandine) sources in the region of Rajasthan, and what I found was a completely different story: protected by local politicians paid off by bribes by the miners, larger mine operations of all kinds of minerals go on despite being outside the law. In the case of the gemstone quality of garnet, small-scale and artisanal mining activities are being carried out in different parts of Rajasthan and it seems that this this type of informal mining might have been the rule rather than the exception also in earlier times. In this paper, I will present my findings on how the local garnet industry is still alive in Rajasthan and what challenges it brings to the researcher to follow the trail of garnet from the mine to the costumer, not only from a historical perspective, but also in contemporary India.



The Video shows  contemporary garnet mining and processing in Rajasthan, India.

Lecture held during the conference “Gemstones in the first Millennium AD. Mines, Trade, Workshops and Symbolism.” October 20th, 2015 at the Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz (Germany).

Garnet Cloisonné on the Continent during the 7th and 8th Centuries

Deutsche Version | Team

The usage of garnets on the continent changed markedly during the final decades of the 6th century. Objects with garnet inlay, which until then had been available to large parts of the population even in remote and rural regions, suddenly became scarce. The two general explanations are that cloisonné had either become unpopular, or that the trade links for the supply of raw material from Sri Lanka and India had been severely disrupted. Continue reading Garnet Cloisonné on the Continent during the 7th and 8th Centuries

Garnets in Byzantine texts

Deutsche Version | Team

This part of the International Framework focuses on the use and especially on the interpretation of carbuncles in the Byzantine cultural area. The focus of this study is the question of the typically Byzantine simultaneous existence of interpretations in the ancient tradition on the one hand, and in the biblically tradition on the other hand. Furthermore, it is intended to establish the significance of carbuncles (gr. Ἄνθραξ) within a “hierarchy of gems” in Byzantium. Continue reading Garnets in Byzantine texts