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Antike Siegel und Glasgemmen der Sammlung Maxwell Sommerville im University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA

Antike Siegel und Glasgemmen der Sammlung Maxwell Sommerville im University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA

By Dietrich Berges. Pp. 78, b&w pls. 69, color pls. 4. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2002. €69.50. ISBN 3-8053-2888-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The 19th century was a great age for European gem collecting, and Maxwell Sommerville falls naturally into the category of European-Americans whom one meets in the novels of Henry James. His generosity to his hometown, Philadelphia, enriched the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology considerably. A holding of more than 3,000 pieces compares well with many collections in the great museums of Europe. The trouble was that Sommerville clearly found it hard to distinguish clearly between ancient and more recent gems, and the Sommerville gems were far too unkindly dismissed by Furtwängler and other scholars as unworthy of attention. This is a pity because, as the present catalogue shows, it contains more than 350 ancient intaglios, some of them well worth the attention of anyone interested in ancient art.

A short biography of Sommerville brings to life a world in which rich collectors from England, France, Germany, as well as the United States would travel through southern and eastern Europe and the Levant, enjoying the local culture and purchasing antiquities. The first of the color plates is a typical portrait of such a collector: Sommerville standing in the company of his prized acquisitions, including gems, mainly cameos. Unfortunately, cameos (and magical amulets) are not included in the present volume, but in any case Sommerville’s prize possession, his “Triumph of Constantine,” is clearly not a genuine antiquity. The other three color plates, however, constitute a useful introduction to what is nevertheless one of the most valuable public holdings of ancient gems in North America.

A glance through the catalogue shows how wrong Furtwängler was not to persevere. The first item, for instance, is a Late Minoan seal depicting a bull, collected before the culture of Minoan Crete had been discovered by Sir Arthur Evans. There follow a few Punic scarabs and rather more Etruscan examples and just one Archaic Greek scarab. The catalogue really comes into its own with the Italic and Roman Republican ringstones, presumably largely acquired in Italy. They include two striking theater masks (nos. 33 and 34), which might indeed be Hellenistic. More typically Italic by reason of their stylized forms and prominent use of pellets is a gem depicting Methe (54), the subject certainly Hellenistic and employed by Queen Cleopatra, but the style as well as material (banded agate) is Italian. What was to become a Roman obsession with symbols is already present in the second century in a gem showing a hound, a cicada, an altar, and a rudder (50).

The section on Late Republican and Augustan gems is extensive. One or two gems really belong in the previous section: an interesting inscribed gem belonging to a libertus of Ennius Lucius that figures the head of Apollo (no. 67), and a charming archaizing maenad (72), which parallels a gem set in a ring found with Iron Age coins at Alton, Hampshire, in England. There are hints of great events in a gem showing essentially Venus holding a sword, but here the goddess has the wing of Victory (91). This could allude to the victory of Actium, as more certainly does Fortuna seated on a ship’s prow, the inscription Amicus again possibly that of a freedman owner (92), and a very fine study of a nereid and triton (96). A lovely eagle head on a nicolo-onyx (112), a proud symbol of empire, looks early, but it is reused in a third-century ring. Incidentally, there is a similar case of reuse among the glass intaglios discussed later in the volume where an Augustan wolf and twins (350) was remounted in a third-century disc-brooch.

There is a good selection of Roman imperial gems. Many of these are standardized through the empire, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Minerva, Victory, and the rest; however, there are some unusual pieces, among them a chalcedony depicting the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (no. 123), not all that unusual in itself but here surrounded by busts of the other nine Olympians. The wearer was presumably anxious to obtain the full favor of all the gods. Some gems appertain to eastern cult, such as the jasper depicting a bust of Hermes with the lotus crown of Thoth, above an Osiris mummy (134); several intaglios (156–59) refer to Serapis, two of them (156–57) inscribed with appropriate acclamations. Harpocrates (165–67) is also present and a charming reclining Isis-Fortuna (212) should be noted.

A major purpose of intaglio seals, apart from their practical use as seals, was to combat evil forces; a stork eating a lizard (no. 234) and a griffin fighting a snake (239) convey this message in a pithy manner. Such, too, was the use of combinations of human, mammalian, and avian features represented by two seals, one with a combination of human mask, horse and ram heads, and cockerel’s feet (242) and the other substituting the horse head for a cockerel’s and the ram for an elephant (243).

About 100 of the intaglios are molded glass, many of them of Late Republican date, and it is good to see them given adequate treatment. Although in a sense mass-produced, the best, such as the resting warrior (no. 265), Omphale (316), and Bellerophon on Pegasus (298), reflect works of high quality, and they were all that many ordinary people could afford.

The usefulness of this catalogue is vitiated in three or four respects. The first is the language of presentation. This is the only recent catalogue, published in book form, of an American collection, apart from the admirable catalogue of the Getty gems. If the idea was to make the collection more accessible to the largely English-speaking population of the United States, why was it not translated into English? Second, the omission of magical gems and ancient cameos is obtuse, for they are very much part of the glyptic production of the Imperial period; perhaps this will be made good very shortly. And third, there are the limitations of the collection itself, not just the lack of Greek gems, for example, but the failure of the collector to record where he acquired his gems, save in a few instances (86 in Rome; 90 in Athens). I also would have liked a more leisurely discussion about possible meanings of devices, the question of reusing old gems, and links between gems and other arts.

Despite such strictures, the volume is attractively produced, well presented, scholarly in content, and a pleasure to have on the shelves. But how many libraries in the United States will bother to buy a book that makes so few concessions to general readers of ancient history and archaeology?

Martin Henig
Institute of Archaeology
36 Beaumont Street
Oxford OX1 2PG
United Kingdom

Book Review of Antike Siegel und Glasgemmen der Sammlung Maxwell Sommerville im University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, Pa., by Dietrich Berges

Reviewed by Martin Henig

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Henig

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