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A Collection of Classical and Eastern Intaglios, Rings and Cameos

A Collection of Classical and Eastern Intaglios, Rings and Cameos

Edited by Claudia Wagner and John Boardman. Vol. 1. Pp. 137, pls. 140. The Beazley Archive and Archaeopress, Oxford 2003. ISBN 1-903-767-05-9 (cloth).

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This is the first volume in a relatively new series called Studies in Gems and Jewelry (only one other volume has appeared to date: Boardman’s Classical Phoenician Scarabs, also published in 2003). It presents catalogue entries and photographs for almost 1,000 engraved gems, finger rings, and cylinder seals from a large, unnamed, private collection. None of the examples in this volume has ever before been published, though a selection of other gems from the same collection was previously included in Boardman’s Intaglios and Rings: Greek, Etruscan, and Eastern. From a Private Collection (London 1975).

According to the book’s preface, the gemstones in the catalogue were acquired by a private collector from various sources between 1921 and 1970, and they are currently in the possession of the original collector’s son. They range in date from the third millennium B.C. to the 19th century A.D., including Mesopotamian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Sassanian, and Neoclassical examples. Several of the stones are of particularly high quality or of “exceptional archaeological or iconographic interest” (1), and the collection overall certainly rivals or exceeds those found elsewhere, either in private venues or in major public museums/galleries. The publication of these gemstones is, therefore, an important undertaking and is clearly intended for scholars, especially those doing active research on gemstones and/or cylinder seals. Indeed, the authors state explicitly that their goal is to make this collection “known to scholars who might wish to take study of individual pieces further” (1–2). The complete contents include a short preface, extensive catalogue, bibliographic abbreviations, indices, and plates.

The catalogue itself is organized both chronologically and by type. The chapters include “Greek,” “Etruscan,” “Roman,” “Metal Finger Rings,” “Cameos,” “17th to 19th Century,” “Eastern,” and “Eastern Cylinder Seals.” Within these broad headings, the pieces are further grouped according to various criteria. For the Greek examples, subsections include “Archaic Gems,” “Classical Gems,” “Graeco-Persian Gems,” “Classical and Graeco-Persian Glass,” and “Hellenistic to Augustan Gems.” The Etruscan examples are presented by type (Scarabs [Fine Style, a globolo], and Etruscan and related Italic ringstones), while the Roman ones are sorted according to their iconography (Gods, Goddesses, Animals, Monsters). This approach is somewhat confusing; a reader may seek a Hellenistic cameo in the “Greek: Hellenistic Gems” section only to find it in the “Cameos” chapter. It would have been more useful to organize the catalogue systematically by either chronology or type and to avoid mixing criteria. The authors legitimately observe that precise dating of gemstones is often problematic, particularly for the Roman period, and this explains their choice of organization method. Still, greater consistency would make the material far more easily accessible.

Most catalogue entries are short; each includes a brief description of the stone (material, dimensions), the iconography (including comparanda), occasionally a provenance, and sometimes an approximate date. Bibliographic references are provided for those few stones that have been mentioned in print previously. Many of the descriptions refer to gem types that are provided in two of Boardman’s earlier books, Archaic Greek Gems (London 1968) and Greek Gems and Finger Rings (London 1970/2001); it would have been convenient if the authors had also included a brief summary of the types here. The material and dimensions are straightforward and useful. Every catalogued gemstone is illustrated, though the photographs are not to scale. The fact that many of the stones lack provenance is usual not only for objects in a private collection but also for gemstones in general. Dates are frequently omitted. For Roman stones, the authors themselves assert that “it would be wrong to think that the date does not matter, but since we have no knowledge of the ancient context of these stones, except where a recognizable portrait is offered or on grounds of epigraphy (very vague), it must be judged relatively unimportant beside the subject matter” (33).

One section of the catalogue entry that would benefit from greater detail is the account of the iconography. In many instances, the representations on the stones are described with extreme succinctness, with expressions such as “a goat standing” or “a naked youth with a horse,” and there is little attempt to interpret the image in any greater depth. This compels the reader to turn to the photograph of the stone for a clearer understanding of the scene depicted on the gemstone.

The illustrations are by far the most valuable part of this publication. There are four color plates, depicting 18 of the gemstones, and 135 black-and-white plates that provide clear images of every object in the catalogue. Most of the photographs were taken by Boardman. Occasionally, cast impressions of the stones are also included, “wherever they seemed to be needed to record detail” (1). No scales are provided in the photographs, but the introduction explains that most of the gemstones are shown at three times life size, while the cylinder seal impressions are approximately one-and-a-half times life size. The scale of the photographs makes it convenient for readers to examine the minute details of the stones, as most will want to do.

This attractive, well-edited volume is a significant addition to the current available literature on classical gemstones and will certainly enhance any research library. Scholars who specialize in gems and cameos will also be interested in acquiring this publication. Its comprehensive contents provide descriptions and illustrations of numerous previously unpublished and inaccessible gemstones, offering researchers a valuable corpus of comparanda and parallels for studying gemstones of the ancient world.

Lisa R. Brody
Department of Art
Queens College, CUNY
65-30 Kissena Boulevard
Flushing, New York 11367

Book Review of A Collection of Classical and Eastern Intaglios, Rings and Cameos. Vol. 1, edited by Claudia Wagner and John Boardman

Reviewed by Lisa R. Brody

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 2 (April 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Brody

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