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Roman intaglio engraved, in a 19th century ring. Source: Author Copyright S&SWM

Ian Marshman, School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester

A Unique Roman Engraved Gem

Today this curious little artefact resides in the stores of the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, but it has travelled a great deal in its long life. However, it is only now been possible, because of the work of this project, that we can reconnect it with its context and understand its history. The tiny gemstone intaglio engraved with the image of a military musician playing a horn was once mounted in a Roman signet ring, and today survives set within a nineteenth century finger ring. Its story is one of empire and soldiers, but also art, music, and collecting.

The red jasper gemstone itself is many eons old, having formed within the earth long before humans were to walk upon it. Jasper is a semi-precious variety of chryptocrystalline quartz, and could have come from many possible sources. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder describes in his Natural History that the best kind of haematitis (the Latin name for the gem) came from far flung Aethiopia (at the source of the Nile), yet it was also said to be found in Arabia and (north) Africa (N.H. 37.60). The gemstone had also been mined in prehistoric Italy, but Pliny seems oblivious to this (de Pascale et al 2006). The superstitious Romans, like many societies, believed such gemstones possessed magical properties, and Pliny noted that red jasper could help the wearer perceive the plots of barbarians, aid petitions to kings, and would be beneficial if rubbed on the body during battle (N.H. 37.60). With such attractive qualities, it is perhaps no surprise that the gemstone became fashionable for signet rings in the second century AD. It was in the earlier part of this century that this particular gem was probably engraved, based on the style of cutting, which conforms to the ‘small grooves style’ (Maaskant-Kleibrink 1975). Until now this artefact’s provenance had been unknown and forgotten, but the Pitt-Rivers catalogues in Cambridge University Library record that it came from the German Rhineland near Sinzig. The river Rhine had been a major frontier for the Roman Empire and many soldiers were stationed there in order to control movement and defend against incursions. This little gem was likely lost in Germany by such a soldier, to whom it would have been both a precious exotic jewel and their personal signet.

The image engraved on the gem is very unusual. Roman signet rings rarely show scenes of everyday life and the Roman military seem to have preferred their seals to bear representations of the mythical ancient Greek heroes (Henig 1970) rather than images associated with contemporary conflict. This artefact is therefore a unique gem, showing as it does not just a soldier but a military musician or cornicen playing the huge curving horn known as the cornu. The ancient authors describe that the cornu was used to signal orders on the battlefield, and was played by a junior officer attached to the commanding officer (Vegetius De Re Millitari 2; Peddie 1996, 21-23). Other representations of men playing the cornu exist on tombstones from the Rhine frontier, where they represent something approximating a ‘portrait’ of the deceased. Trajan’s column at Rome includes representations of the cornu being played by cornicines as part of a military band playing as the emperor led a sacrifice on behalf of the army (spiral 16, panel A).

Elsewhere such musicians occur on civilian funerary monuments where they are occur during the funeral rites, and it would seem that the instrument was used to add musical gravitas to the elaborate funeral processions that marked the deaths of wealthy Romans (Landels 1999, 180). A more cheerful yet equally macabre use of the cornu is attested by a German mosaic, found at Nennig near Trier, where it is shown being played alongside the water organ as an accompaniment to the gruesome spectacles of the amphitheatre (Ginsberg-Klar 1981, 314). We can be sure that this gem shows a soldier rather than a civilian musician because he wears the short military tunic and cloak, and is shown with the round shield carried by cornicines (Bishop & Coulston 1993, 151).

The sound made by the huge instrument remains something of a mystery. Virgil describes it as a “hellish note” (Aeneid 7. 513-14 cf. Landels 1958) and it may have originated as simply a animal horn which when blown produced a droning noise, but by the second century it had developed into the elegant brass instrument shown on the gem. This had a mouthpiece which improved its tone and allowed the musician to play something like a diatonic scale (Meucci 1989, 85; Landels 1999, 204). Other Roman gemstone intaglios sometimes show a cornu being played by a crane, and this has led Henig to suggest that perhaps the instrument’s sound resembled the call of this bird (Henig 2000, 61-2). We can be sure that the cornu must have been a loud and impressive sounding instrument, for it to be used both in warfare and in the amphitheatre. We might expect that this unusual gem was worn by a cornicen, and might like the images on the tombstones have been meant as a representation of a specific individual. Perhaps commissioned personally to mark his promotion, or maybe by his messmates or superiors to commemorate a notable deed or event.

That this artefact resides in Salisbury today is itself an interesting story. The way the gem has been mounted in a supposedly gold (but tarnished) nineteenth century ring suggests that it had a life before it entered the Pitt-Rivers collection. After its discovery in Sinzig it may have been mounted by a local jeweller and passed off as a Roman gold ring to increase its value, since it is described by Pitt-Rivers’ friend Henry H. Howorth with another, now lost, as “Roman rings…and exceptionally good ones” (L760). It seems that the manufacture of the ‘gold’ ring to accompany the gem made it highly desirable as Howorth goes on to say “You must not keep these things out of consideration to me I will gladly have them if you don’t want them but I thought they filled up 2 or 3 gaps in your collection & I thought also I secured them at a reasonable price” (L760).

Sadly, we can only guess at what Pitt-Rivers thought of the rings and what gaps they were perceived to fill, but it could be suggested that not being himself a classical archaeologist, he gave credence to his friend’s inaccurate description, which also identified the gemstones as cameos, which are a totally different kind of form of engraved gemstone that have a positive (pronounced) image rather than the negative (sunken) intaglio needed for use in signet rings. The Pitt-Rivers catalogue suggest that the artefact was stored in the gold case at his home at Rushmore, again suggesting that he defined it as a Roman ‘gold’ ring rather than placing significance on the gemstone. It is not certain what the gold case was, but it seems likely from the movement of other objects that it was somewhere that Pitt-Rivers placed gold objects where they could be admired by his guests (Alison Petch pers comm.). We do not know if the gem was ever exhibited at the Farnham Museum with the rest of the collection, but it is perhaps the fact that Pitt-Rivers misunderstood the ring and did not realize the intaglios uniqueness that meant it was not sold off when the collection began to split up. That Howorth and Pitt-Rivers took an interest in this little ring, and were careful to record its provenance means we have a much better understanding of this ancient Roman gem than many in the famous collections of the major international museums.


Bishop, M. C. & Coulston, J. C. N., 1993. Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the fall of Rome. London: B. T. Batsford

de Pascale, A., Maggi, R., Montanari, C. & Moreno, D., 2006. Pollen, Herds, Jasper, and Copper Mines: economic and environmental changes during the 4th and 3rd millennium BC in Liguria (NW Italy). Environmental Archaeology 11(1), 115-124

Ginsberg-Kler, M. E., 1981. 'The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period'. World Archaeology 12(3), 313-320

Henig, M., 1970. The Veneration of Heroes in the Roman Army: the evidence of engraved gemstones. Britannia 1, 249-265

Henig, M., 2000. 'The Intaglios. 61-63 in: E. W. Sauer. Alchester, a Claudian ‘Vexilation Fortress’ near the Western Boundary of the Catevellauni. New Light on the Roman Invasion of Britain'. The Archaeological Journal 157, 1-78

Landels, J. G., 1958. 'A Hellish Note'. The Classical Quarterly, new series 8 (3/4), 219-220

Landels, J. G., 1999. Music in Ancient Greece and Rome. London: Routledge

Maaskant-Kleibrink, M., 1975. Classification of Ancient Engraved Gems: a study based on the collection in the Royal Coin Cabinet, The Hague, with a history of the collection. Leiden: Boerhaavezalen

Peddie, J., 1996. The Roman War Machine. Conshohocken: Combined Books

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