Tag Archives: Roman Empire

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.

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).