Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Chris Entwistle, Noël Adams (ed.), 'Gems of Heaven:' Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity c. AD 200-600. British Museum Research Publication 177. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 2011. Pp. x, 274. ISBN 9780861591770. $80.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Lidonnici, Vassar College (lylidonnici@vassar.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

This collection of thirty essays represent papers delivered at a conference held at the British Museum in May, 2009 ; they cover a wide range of subjects, and many are important contributions to the multiple fields of study for which inscribed gems are a significant form of evidence. Each essay is copiously annotated, and the volume has more than 600 color illustrations of items under discussion, each very helpfully labeled. Given the sheer number of contributions this review will be rather schematic, grouping the essays in ways that the editors may not have intended.

The first four articles (Çiğdem Lüle, "Non-destructive Gemmological Tests for the Identification of Ancient Gems;" Lisbet Thoresen, "A Case Study on Gemstone Origins: Chrysothrix, a Group of Roman Magical Gems;" Noël Adams, "The Garnet Millennium: The Role of Seal Stones in Garnet Studies;" Noël Adams, Çiğdem Lüle and Emma Passmore, "Lithóis Indikois: Preliminary Characterization of Garnet Seal Stones from Central and South Asia") deal with the materials from which some gems were made, and the extent to which geographical sources can be identified for completed gems that may today be found everywhere on earth, wherever they may have been initially created or used. These fascinating essays represent an important new arena in ancient history and archaeology that brings modern scientific techniques and methods together with ancient literary sources dealing with stones, thus beginning to parse out the social-historical and economic trends that can be gleaned from both the kinds of stones and the images those stones were chosen to convey.

The next six essays (Richard Gordon, "Archaeologies of Magical Gems;" Chris Faraone, "Text, Image and Medium: the Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones;" Attilio Mastrocinque, "The Colours of Magical Gems;" Véronique Dasen, "Magic and Medicine: Gems and the Power of Seals;" Árpád M. Nagy, "Magical Gems and Classical Archaeology;" and Simone Michel-von Dungern, "Studies on Magical Gems in the British Museum") consider inscribed gems primarily categorized as 'magical' and the scholarly perspectives that have hindered their full inclusion into either Classical archaeology on the one hand, and the study of ancient Mediterranean magical (or religious) traditions on the other. These articles should be required reading for anyone working in either of those areas today. Gordon's essay introduces the subject by describing the 'cognitive location' of gems such as these within the scholarly literature and within ancient literary sources dealing with gems; this methodological focus is also at the center of Nagy's contribution. Faraone discusses the evolution of the texts and images included on the gems and concludes that in actuality, where healing objects are concerned, it seems the stone itself to be of greatest importance, followed by the image it carries and finally the text, which seems to be the latest addition to the tradition. This focus on the stone itself is also the subject of Mastrocinque's essay. Dasen discusses the double meaning of the ancient term 'sphragis,' as both a stamp, for which inscribed gems could be and were used, and as the remedy or pill that carries the stamp. I would observe also that the gem itself may reflect the 'sealing' of a ritual act performed, which then confers some kind of efficacy onto the object then worn or carried, whether by the practitioner himself or by the marketplace customer for lucky objects. Michel-von Dungern's essay concerns the astrological dimension of many of the common images and inscriptions on gems. Although the paper focuses upon British Museum holdings, it is relevant to the study of gems overall and is an important contribution that connects these images and their associated texts with the decans and also with the differing views of the constellations and the zodiac in late antiquity.

The remaining twenty essays are not so easy to group or to categorize. Some are area studies or surveys that cover material from Israel (Orit Peleg-Barkat and Yotam Tepper, "Intaglios in Military Contexts in 2nd-4th Century AD Palestine: the Case of Legio and Aelia Capitolina;" Shua Amorai-Stark and Malka Hershkovitz, "Selected Antique Gems from Israel"); Portugal (Graça Cravinho and Shua Amorai-Stark, "The Christian Gems from Portugal in Context"); Gaul (Hélène Guiraud, "Intaglios and Cameos from Gaul in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD"); and Croatia (Bruna Nardelli, "Late Roman Gems from Tilurium in Croatia"). The interpretation of area surveys such as these is complicated by the urge to collect in both antiquity and the modern period, and the ease with which gems could be transported even by ancient owners who may have left their full-size marble sculptures at home when posted to faraway places.

In addition, there are studies of particular motifs or artistic content (Ken Lapatin, "Grylloi;" Erika Zwierlein-Diehl, "Gem Portraits of Soldier Emperors;" Adrian Marsden, "Overtones of Olympus: Roman Imperial Portrait Gems, Medallions and Coins in the 3rd Century AD;" Helen Molesworth and Martin Henig, "Love and Passion: Personal Cameos in Late Antiquity from the Content Collection;" Hadrien Rambach, "The Fight of Athena and Poseidon and its Depiction on Glyptics Across the Centuries"); of single objects (Antje Krug, "The Belgrade Cameo") ; of variations over time in arranging text around an image (Sébastien Aubry, "Inscriptions on Portrait Gems in Late Antiquity (4th – 6th centuries): Between Epigraphic Tradition and Numismatic Particularism"); and on how much latitude there was in recreating famous likenesses in miniature, which has implications for gems and coinage (Elisabetta Gagetti, "Three Degrees of Separation: Detail Reworking, Type Updating and Identity: Transformation in Roman Imperial Glyptic Portraits in the Round"). These essays cover a lot of primarily art-historical ground and provide excellent illustrations and examples of the various subjects and areas they address.

Three articles deal with Christian iconography and the problem of determining the date or authenticity of Christian objects on the basis of iconography (Jeffrey Spier, "Late Antique and Early Christian Gems: some Unpublished Examples;" Josef Engemann, " The Argument from Silence – Iconographical Statements of 1981 on Faked Gems Reconsidered;" Felicity Harley-McGowan, "The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity"). These essays are of particular interest for Classicists and archaeologists who rely upon established (or hopefully established) sequences of pottery and other markers that are arranged based partly upon progressions in style and technological sophistication, and partly on dated or datable finds. The first two of these papers address the ways in which the issue of forgery complicates the discussion in an interesting and helpful way.

Finally, four essays discuss the way ancient engraved gemstones are reinterpreted or re-used in the medieval period and beyond (Gertrud Platz-Horster, "Seals in Transition: Their Change of Function and Value in Late Antiquity;" Gemma Sena Chiesa, "Myth Revisited: The Re-use of Mythological Cameos and Intaglios in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages;" Genevra Kornbluth, "Roman Intaglios Oddly Set: the Transformative Power of the Metalwork Mount;" Tamás Gesztelyi, "The Re-use and Re-interpretation of Gemstones in Medieval Hungary").

Such a varied collection of essays will be of interest to scholars working in many different fields, and the book should certainly be in university libraries, especially libraries of art. As noted, the six articles dealing with so-called magical gems (upon which I am best able to comment) are important and should be widely read by scholars of classics, magic, religion and ancient medicine, as should the articles on the geological sources of the gems and how they relate to the subjects engraved upon them.

Given its scope, it is surprising that the book does not address the ethical and scientific issues involved in relying upon unexcavated and unpublished material from private collections, nor is the issue of the forgery of objects of desire such as inscribed gems brought to the forefront of the overall discussion. These matters are discussed in some of the articles, most explicitly in those by Gordon and Spier. The essay by Peleg-Barkat and Tepper carefully distinguishes between excavated and collected material, and the question of whether specific objects are forgeries is the subject of Engemann's paper. Several other essays also mention the issue in passing. However, given the importance of this problem and the different ways in which both international law and the various scholarly associations such as AIA, ASOR, and the SBL are currently grappling with this many-headed Hydra, it is strange that no specific essay dealing with the subject was included. I recognize that the volume collects presentations from a specific conference, but if no paper dealing with this important issue was delivered there, then I think that publication of the volume would have provided an opportunity for this lack to be noted – an opportunity that was missed. Indeed, the book lacks an introduction of any kind. In a collection of so many essays of such varied content, an introduction seems an essential component that could set each contribution into context with the others, and extend the necessarily narrow focus of most of them into a conversation with broader frames of thought in scholarship on antiquity.

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