The Gems of Roman Devon
3 October 2012
With over a million objects in its collections, RAMM is a major custodian of local history. But RAMM is much more than a collection of objects. It is their stories that really inform us about our past: how we lived and died, the societies we lived in and our connections with the wider world. Further discoveries and research are constantly expanding our understanding and RAMM’s collections are widely used by students and researchers.
Ian Marshman, for example, is a postgraduate student at the University of Leicester. He is reinterpreting the use of engraved gemstone intaglios in Roman Britain to better understand their potential use as personal document seals. To accomplish this he travelled the length and breadth of Britain to visit the museums and archaeological sites that care for these small but significant objects. His travels included a visit to RAMM. In his own words…..
“The Royal Albert Memorial Museum has in its care a nationally, and indeed internationally, important collection of ancient glyptic (engraved gemstone) material. However, my own visits to Exeter were not to see this impressive antiquarian collection but to consult the much less studied, yet equally interesting, assemblage of Roman gemstones that have been unearthed locally. As well as visiting the RAMM, my journey to the South West has also taken me to Tiverton Museum and the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro and I should like to thank the staff of each of these institutions for taking the time to facilitate my enquiries and help with my research.”
Roman Signet Rings
“Like many societies before the modern era, the Roman Empire relied on the practice of sealing documents, property and goods as a form of security and of proving identity. When Britain became part of the empire, this practice of sealing and signet ring wearing came with it alongside other customs of urban living. The exotic gemstones they used to make seals came from sources as far afield as India and Sub-Saharan Africa and reflect the status of both the wearer and the empire itself as an economic power in the ancient world. They are engraved with an almost endless range of images, from depictions of Graeco-Roman gods and goddesses to animals, magical symbols and scenes of daily life. Through their function as seals these gems provide a tangible link to the way ancient individuals presented themselves.”
Signets from the South West
“Many of these objects can be associated with the military and finds in the South West concentrate in Exeter itself and at forts at Tiverton and Nanstallon. One of the signet rings from Exeter is made from iron, probably as a statement of the wearer’s humility, and is set with an onyx gemstone engraved with an image of Mercury. The god is shown in his guise as protector of trade and commerce, carrying a purse laden with coins. A gem from the Roman fort at Tiverton shows a horse braying and reflects a soldier’s interest in rural life. The wild and naturalistic depiction of the horse is in contrast to many Roman depictions, which often show the animal being ridden in a hunt or on parade. The style of this particular gem has led scholars to suggest it was engraved by a workshop known to be operating at Bath, Somerset, where a cache of gems of a similar style have been found in the drain from the sacred spring. Archaeological evidence attests that the spa at Bath was much frequented by soldiers, perhaps there to recuperate and seek healing from the waters that were sacred to the goddess Sulis Minerva. That gem engravers set up shop in Bath helps add to the picture of Roman Bath as a watering place of the fashionable élite, much as it became in its later Georgian heyday. It is hoped that through further research into the distribution of these very personal objects, we can gain many more such insights into the diverse communities of Roman Britain.”
Top: Intaglio showing Mercury from Exeter (RAMM)
Bottom left: Intaglio showing a horse from Tiverton fort, Devon (RAMM)
Bottom right: Intaglio showing a horse from the baths at Bath, Somerset © Roman Baths Museum www.romanbaths.co.uk