Monday, April 22, 2013

Roman Gems from Castleford

Over the years, excavations at Castleford have produced some real gems. Ian Marshman a PhD student from the School of Archaeology & Ancient History at the University of Leicester recently came to examine 6 Roman engraved gemstones from the site. Gems like these were worn in finger rings and used to seal important documents and provisions, and were highly valued objects to the people who wore them. The stones themselves would have travelled thousands of miles to end up in Castleford, with some coming from as far away as India and Sri Lanka.

These 6 gems will form part of Ian’s survey of these objects from right across Roman Britain, whose total at present stands at well over 1,900 artefacts! He hopes to be able to study the way people chose different images for their seals in different parts of the Roman province, and how this might have changed across time. Every gem was someone’s personal seal, and as such they can tell us a lot about the ancient people who owned them.

Two of the Castleford gems have engravings unique in Roman Britain. The first is a red jasper engraved with the image of a hunting dog seizing its quarry (possibly a hare, but this part of the gem is chipped). Hunting was a popular pastime for wealthy people in the Roman period, and an image of a fine hound like this would have highlighted its owner’s interest in this prestige activity. The second gem still remains in its silver ring and is engraved with the image of a Roman style lamp. Lamps like this were not very common in Roman Britain, because they required imported olive oil for fuel. It is possible that this ring came from the Mediterranean region where such lamps were commonplace, and where it would have been understood as a symbol of hope.
Castleford's Roman gems.  See if you can spot any of these tiny objects on display in The Forum when it opens later this year
The other Castleford gems are no less interesting. One shows a parrot, a bird which originated, like some of the gems, in far off India. The Roman’s associated parrots with Bacchus, the god of wine, but they were also kept as exotic pets by the wealthy. Another gem, a pale blue chalcedony, shows the king of the gods, Jupiter. The only glass ‘gem’ from Castleford is also interesting for it is moulded with a crude image of a warship full of soldiers carrying shields…did this depict the invasion of Britain back in AD 43? Perhaps the best of the gems so far uncovered at Castleford shows a Satyr (a creature part man-part goat) using a bunch of grapes to tease a dog, who leaps up to try to devour them. This playful and naturalistic scene is incredibly finely cut on a carnelian gem less than 1 cm across. Tiny gems like these remind us of the great skill of craftsmen in the Roman period, and provide us with a tangible link with the ancient people who wore them on their fingers everyday.

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