Tag Archives: Meaning/Quality

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.

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).

Garnet Jewellery in Early Medieval Sweden

Deutsche Version | Team

Present-day Sweden has a large and varied garnet material from the Iron Age. Even if there are finds dating back to the Late Roman Period most objects derive from the 5th to 8th centuries. In Sweden this time period is called the Migration and Vendel Period, and it is characterised by its regional power structures, wealthy burials and far-reaching networks of contacts. Most of the garnets are part of jewellery such as brooches but also adorning high status weaponry etc. Continue reading Garnet Jewellery in Early Medieval Sweden

Scientific and Technical Analyses of Garnet Jewellery

Deutsche Version | Team

Depending on their respective geological origin, the chemical composition of garnets varies significantly. Different areas of origin of ancient garnet can thus be distinguished by scientific analyses.

Analyses into the origins of garnet from the areas on the periphery of the Merovingian Empire, planned to be carried out within the scope of this subproject, will form the basis for an understanding of chronological changes of the distribution routes and recognising possible reasons for the “garnet route in crisis”. Continue reading Scientific and Technical Analyses of Garnet Jewellery

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