Gem Impressions

In Greek and Roman culture, many individuals possessed a personal seal, carved into precious or semi-precious stone, which they used to sign their name on legal documents and to seal correspondence. Seals were used as markers of identity and security devices, and carried unique images that were stamped into wax or clay to create impressions. Each image was incised into the stone in negative form, so that it appeared in positive form in its impression, a technique called intaglio

Because of their practical function, engraved gems were usually carried on the person, often set into a ring. As beautiful objects in their own right, they were also worn as jewelry, set into rings, earrings and necklaces. Seals could act as important symbols of power and authority, used in an official capacity by city-states, kings and emperors. But they were also regarded as works of art, valued as both precious gems and miniature sculptures carved with incredible skill and attention to detail. 

Gem Cabinets

In Hellenistic Greece and Rome, engraved gems were regarded as collectors’ items, displayed in ‘gem cabinets’ (daktyliothecae) in palaces and temples. During the Middle Ages, ancient gems were often set into other treasured objects, such as jewelry, book covers, and even crosses and reliquaries. From the Renaissance onwards, collectors of Greek and Roman art were keen to emulate ancients such as Julius Caesar in creating their own daktyliothecae, and today, every major collection of antiquities includes hundreds of engraved gems. 

During the 18th Century, the art dealer James Tassie (1737-94) made it possible for less wealthy collectors to compile their own ‘gem cabinets’ made of plaster and colored paste impressions, which were displayed in specially designed “books”. Instead of seeing the negative image incised into the original gem, the viewer is able to see a cast of the positive image that would have been stamped into wax or clay. 

Cornell is lucky enough to possess its own extensive daktyliotheca, purchased from a German manufacturer called Gustav Eichler (1801-77) during the 19th Century and given to the university by its first president, Andrew Dickson White. Based on a collection in the Berlin Museum, it includes almost two thousand plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Egyptian seal-stones, as well as replicas of Medieval, Renaissance and Neoclassical medallions. The Eichler volumes are now stored in Olin Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Ancient Art in Miniature

Engraved gems cover almost the entire iconographic range of ancient art, but in miniature form. We find portraits of important individuals, from kings to philosophers; images of the gods, which often replicated famous cult statues; popular scenes from Greek and Roman mythology; symbols of love and friendship, such as clasped hands; scenes of ships at sea, which may allude to travel or trade; and echoes of the natural world, such as animals, birds and plants. Each individual was free to choose a device that had personal significance. For those who couldn’t afford expensive gemstones, intaglios were available in the form of mass-produced glass paste seals.

Amulets and Magical Devices

Not all engraved stones served as seals, as we see from some gemstones inscribed with writing that was readable on the stone itself rather than in impression. References in ancient literature suggest that engraved stones could also be used as amulets, whose protective imagery would attract good fortune. Some amulets were even used in magical rituals; people believed they could use these objects to ward off sickness, secure divine favor, become popular with friends and lovers, and acquire riches. Papyri from Roman Egypt describe the use of amulets in magical rites, and the images and inscriptions on some engraved gems from the Roman Imperial period appear to evoke the same gods, demons, magic words, and mysterious symbols that we find in ancient magicians’ handbooks and curse tablets. Their imagery includes many allusions to Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Judeo-Christian religious traditions, illustrating the cosmopolitan cultural milieu of the Roman empire.

A closer look at these objects suggests that the borders between “magical gems” and other types of engraved gemstone are more slippery than they may seem at first. The concept of “magic” meant different things to different people in antiquity, and even gems without overtly “magical” imagery could be used in personal rituals. As a result, a reconsideration of the category of “magical gems” raises important questions. How did people decide which types of ritual were socially acceptable and which were forbidden, and how flexible were the boundaries between magic, religion, and medicine? For scholars investigating the complex spectrum of ancient practices, beliefs, and claims about “magic,” engraved gems provide important evidence on personal ritual practices in antiquity.