Stories In Stone
By Glynn Davis, Senior Collections and Learning Curator
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Colchester Museums care for a fascinating collection of Roman intaglios. These small gems are carved with intricate designs of an array of subjects, from deities and myths to animals and inanimate objects. An intaglio would originally have been mounted in a ring, worn on the finger by both men and women across the empire. Although very decorative, and no doubt a sign of status and wealth, these small images also had a very practical function, acting as personal seals for e.g. letters and legal documents. The gem would have been pressed into hot wax leaving its image reversed in relief, acting as a personal signature. Thousands of intaglios have been recovered from Roman Britain and although Colchester has a small collection of over 60, each holds a hidden story of their owner. Below are five highlights:
Camulodunum: Fortress of the War
This intaglio – a deep red carnelian – has survived still mounted in its iron ring. It was only very recently that intaglio expert Martin Henig revealed this gem to be some 150-250 years older than originally thought! The image is of the Roman god of war, Mars, helmeted and holding his spear and shield. Mars was a popular god at Colchester, the original name of which – Camolodunum – roughly translates as ‘Fortress of the War God’. This intaglio was discovered at the site of Gosbecks, a major centre of power in the Iron Age period, and which continued to be an important religious site in the Roman period. The ring was found within the precinct of a Romano-Celtic temple there and we may ponder if Mars was the deity worshipped at the site. The intaglio dates to the Roman Republican period and could be as old as 200 BC. It is very likely to have arrived in Britain on the finger of a solider, as part of emperor Claudius’ invasion of Britain in 43 AD, a family heirloom passed down generations of the family. Perhaps, more speculatively, it could have been owned by an Iron Age Briton (a Catuvellaunian or Trinovantian), traded from the Romans decades before their invasion. In this instance, it may not be Mars that the owner saw upon this ring, but Mars Camulos – the ancient Britons’ own god of war.
You might miss this intaglio when visiting Colchester Castle, as your eye might be drawn to the array of gold and silver jewellery that takes centre stage. This blue glass gem is part of the Fenwick Treasure, excavated from underneath Fenwick’s department store in Colchester Hight Street, 2014. It remains the earliest high-status Roman jewellery hoard from the country. The gem depicts a pantheress and is unusual in being 50-100 years older than any of the other items it was found with. The jewellery includes pieces traditionally worn by women and men e.g. earrings and military bracelets (armillae) respectively. The couple who owned this would have been two of the earliest incomers to Roman Colchester. The military awards may have belonged to a veteran soldier, offered land to settle at Colchester after his many years of service in the army. It is believed the hoard was buried in haste, bundled together and hidden beneath the flooring of a house, which was destroyed in Boudican revolt of AD 60/61. Were the owners perhaps some of a lucky few who escaped the town in time? Or were they just two of the many hundreds who sought refuge in the Temple of Claudius, destroyed after two days of siege, ultimately becoming victims of Queen Boudicca’s vengeance.
These two intaglios are both of a similar coloured stone (nicolo) and feature the most popular subject for Colchester intaglios – a satyr. Satyrs were nature deities sometimes seen as companions to the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus/Bacchus. On one gem the satyr is leaning against a tree and holds a cup and bunch of grapes in either hand. On the other, the Satyr holds a bunch of grapes and his pedum (shepherd’s crook). What makes these special, from all the intaglios discovered in Roman Britain, is that they are inscribed on their reverse with personal names: Eusebius (EYCE/BI) and Eutyches (EYTY). When the first was discovered the signature was interpreted as relating to the owner – the gem-cutter adding a label so it wouldn’t be confused in a busy workshop. When the second was discovered at Elm’s Farm, Heybridge, a different interpretation was offered. Both names are common to Greek freedmen and the Greeks were known as the best in the gem-cutting business in the Roman world. This suggests that Eusebius and Eutyches were perhaps gemmarii (gem-cutters) operating out of a Colchester workshop in the first to second centuries AD.
A small number of intaglios (from Roman Britain at least) can be classed as magical. This usually requires it to be made of a perceived magical material (such as lapis lazuli or haematite), carved with a ‘magical’ image and inscribed with magical words or letters. This banded sardonyx intaglio, set in a silver ring, doesn’t quite fit the bill for this modern definition, but may have still been considered magical by its owner. Its design is certainly unusual. The gem depicts the scene of a hound leaping from a nautilus shell, chasing a hare. The spiral shell was seen by the Romans to represent the uterus and it therefore acted as a powerful symbol of life, fertility and rebirth. Martin Henig has suggested the hound and hare, beyond a simple hunting since, coveys the concept of the ‘teeming life of Paradise’. Dating to the third century AD, an image such as this may have been easily understood by the wearer. This is at a time when ‘mystery cults’ had become embedded in Roman society, popular for their soteriological beliefs.
A Roman Sense of Humour
This is perhaps my favourite intaglio in the Museums’ collections, made from nicolo – a stone with a light blue surface and darker background. The Romans loved a pun, and this example may be playing on both the visual and literary for a laugh. It is carved with a very life-like image of a fly and when the hot wax of a seal cooled it may have looked like this fly had simply landed on it by pure chance. Martin Henig has also suggested there may be a more personal connection to the image – the owner may have had the name (cognomen) musca, which is Latin for ‘fly’.
Discover more stunning intaglios by exploring our Roman Engraved Gems collection online.