Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
A fascination with ancient gemstones goes back to ancient times, when luminaries like Julius Caesar and Hadrian were avid collectors of rare and historically important gems. During the Roman Empire, however, the precious or semi-precious carved seals (intaglios) used for both private and business purposes were a ubiquitous part of daily life. A wide range of symbols were carved on these gems (e.g. gods, animals, magical creatures), with the specific choice of engraving due to one or multiple factors: to denote ownership, an advertisement for one’s piety, as a symbol of fellowship, love or remembrance, as a magic charm, or even to demonstrate a sense of humor (often as a pun on a name).
Within the vast corpus of Roman gemstones published from museum and private collections, relatively few gemstones have a secure archaeological context, which makes it difficult to say anything definitive about their origin, production or dissemination. Among such collections, eight-sided intaglios remain exceptionally rare, enough so that their specific shape is excluded from standard typological charts of diagnostic forms. Examples of this type – typically dated between the 2nd and early 5thcenturies AD – appear to have become increasingly popular in the Late Antique period, with octagonal intaglios displaying a wide range of early Christian symbols and inscriptions. While their exact provenance has remained elusive, several recent catalogs have supplied a general designation of ‘Turkey’ or ‘Anatolia’ as their place of origin.
Excavation of the Common Cemetery at Gordion in central Turkey during 1950s and 60s unearthed a series of Roman graves that contained nine rings of gold, silver, iron and bronze with carved intaglios typical of 2nd to 5th centuries AD. The group included three of octagonal gemstones, providing this rare type with a secure archaeological context. The Gordion finds have raised the possibility that this particular gemstone type was produced and locally disseminated in central Anatolia, most probably by a workshop catering to both pagan and early Christian patrons within one of the region’s urban centers like Ancyra or Caesareia. Since early Christian (pre-4thcentury AD) archaeology is a field that still remains largely under-investigated, these gems provide an important glimpse into how people adapted to changing religious and social conditions in central Turkey under the late Roman Empire.