Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.09

Claudia Wagner, John Boardman, A Collection of Classical and Eastern Intaglios, Rings and Cameos. Studies in Gems and Jewellery, I, and British Archaeological Reports, International Series, 1136.   Oxford:  The Beazley Archive and Archaeopress, 2003.  Pp. 137; pls. 140.  ISBN 1-903767-05-9.  £50.00.  

Reviewed by Michel Cottier, University of Toronto (
Word count: 1406 words

[The reviewer sincerely apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

The Beazley Archive at the University of Oxford and Archaeopress, the Oxford-based publisher of British Archaeological Reports, have decided to open their new series Studies in Gems and Jewellery with the fascinating presentation by Claudia Wagner and John Boardman (hereafter CW and JB) of a selection of pieces coming from one of the major private collections of classical and eastern intaglios, cameos and seals.1 In order to judge the importance of this collection, suffice it here to mention that some two hundred mainly Greek and Etruscan pieces belonging to the same collector had already been the subject of a previous publication by JB and were for the most part subsequently sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.2

Although the identity of the current owner remains undisclosed, we learn from the Preface (p. 1) that the collection is now in the possession of the collector's son and that it was constituted by a series of purchases made from 1921 to about 1970. Some of the pieces came from older collections (e.g., Evans, Southesk, Poniatowksi),3 while others were acquired on the art market. Chronologically the examples presented in this volume range from Mesopotamian cylinder seals of the third millennium BC to neoclassical productions of the nineteenth century of our era. Roman, Near Eastern and Eastern examples form the bulk of the 967 examples presented here, but the reader will also discover in this book a fine selection of Greek and Etruscan productions. Before discussing the motives which directed the two authors in the composition of their work, let us describe the organisation and content of this volume.

After a short preface (pp. 1-2), intaglios, cameos, scarabs, seals and rings are grouped into eight main parts, themselves subdivided into 32 different sections. If the latter subdivisons mainly follow a chronological--but sometimes also a thematic--pattern, the eight main parts are the result of groupings based either on the geographical areas of production of the different pieces or on the material used for their fabrication, with one part especially devoted to neoclassical and modern intaglios and cameos.

Greek gems from the Archaic to the late Hellenistic and Augustan periods form the subject of Part 1 (sections I-IV; nos. 1-110; pp. 3-17). Part 2 (sections VI-VIII; nos. 111-190; pp. 19-29) presents a series of Etruscan and Italic scarabs and ring stones dated from the late 6th to the 1st century BC. Part 3 with its sections IX to XXI deals with Roman intaglios from the first century BC to the third century AD. It is the most substantial one (nos. 191-581; pp. 31-75) and thus offers a thematic presentation (gods and goddesses, heroic and mythical figures, real and fantastical human and animal representations, masks, objects and inscriptions, and magical and Christian gems) rather than a purely chronological one. Part 4 (sections XXII and XXIII; nos. 582-621; pp. 77-83) presents a short selection of (mainly Greek) finger rings in gold, silver, bronze and lead, from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD. Parts 5 and 6 are both very short. The former (section XXIV; nos. 622-651; pp. 85-9) deals with cameos of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, while neoclassical and modern intaglios and cameos are the subject of the latter (section XXV; nos. 652-674; pp. 91-6). In Part 7 (sections XXVI-XXXI; nos. 675-843 ; pp. 97-116) the study enters into the realm of Eastern glyptic and presents seals, scarabs, domes, ellipsoids and ring stones according to geographical and chronological criteria (Urartian, Syrian, Phoenician, Achaemenid Persian, Sasanian, Central Asian and, finally, North Indian). Eastern cylinder seals from the 4th to the 1st millennium BC conclude the volume and are the subjects of Part 8 and its section XXXII (nos. 844-967; pp. 117-32).

As expected in such a catalogue, the descriptions of each piece follow the same template and include: its nature and shape (e.g., scarab, ringstone, finger ring), the material(s) (precious or semiprecious stone, glass, faience or metal), its dimensions, and a short description of the engraved motif or of the piece itself, --followed occasionally (and too rarely for my taste) by short comments on the particularities and originality of the object described and useful parallels. If the antiquity of an item is questionable, this has also been duly recorded in the commentary; finally, if not indicated otherwise, a possible dating for the piece under consideration is also appended.

Some parts and sections have benefitted from short, and sometimes quite developed, introductions, but this procedure has unfortunately not been followed throughout the volume.

Sections I-IV, VI-IX, XII, XIII, XXII-XXIII, XXV-XXIX and XXXI are mainly due to JB, while CW is the sole author of sections X, XIV-XXI, XXIV and XXX; the remaining sections (V, XI and XXXII) are the result of a collaborative effort.

A short list of abbreviations (p. 133) and a series of indices (inscriptions; former collections; classical subjects) close the catalogue part of the volume which is followed by 140 rather good quality plates--four in colour, the rest in black and white--of the originals and/or of their impressions (most of them at three times life-size).

The two authors describe the aims of their work as follows: "The catalogue takes the form of a descriptive handlist rather than a catalogue raisonné, with select comparanda, and with more attention paid to puzzling or important pieces. Of these there are several of the highest quality, and several of exceptional archaeological or iconographic interest" (p. 1). CW and JB have indeed, and with good reasons, underlined several times the importance of some of the items presented in their volume. The unusual subject of no. 15 (p. 7) is one such example, a naked woman putting on or taking off her himation with a dog jumping up at her feet; others are the exceptional quality of a bust of an Amazon engraved on green glass bearing the inscription in Greek DIOSKOURIDO (thus probably a 1st century BC copy of a 5th century original created by Dioskourides); the mastery involved in the production of nos. 113 (p. 21) and 120 (p. 22)--two Etruscan scarabs, the first one adorned with the representation of a youth restraining a leaping horse, the second figuring the hero Capaneus struck by Zeus' thunderbolt; the original attempt at perspective involved in the engraving of a horse on no. 126 (p. 23), or, finally, the enlargement of and additions to a complex scene on a cylinder seal in lapis lazuli dated to the late 2nd millennium BC (no. 880, p. 122). Unfortunately such comments are most of the time extremely short and concern only a small number of items, thus leaving in relative obscurity a large number of very exciting pieces. Moreover, such a willingness to keep the whole work as short as possible has further disadvantages. As a matter of course, the origin and history of the motifs represented could hardly be discussed, but such shortness in the commentary also prevents any potential questioning regarding particular representations. To illustrate this point one example only will do: on no. 27 (p. 8), identified as a Graeco-Persian scaraboid in chalcedony, one discovers the depiction a dog standing on the hump of a dromedary; besides the fact that the subject is truly original (I do not know of any parallel for such a representation), the question of its choice and meaning is left totally unanswered (was this figure due to the whim of the artist or of his client? Are we dealing with the representation of a proverb, a fable, a myth?). Finally, considering JB's previous involvement with the late owner of this collection, it would have been very interesting to know what were the reasons and choices which led this person to collect such a remarkable combination of pieces.

The aim of this book as well as its expected audience are clearly spelled out by the two authors themselves in their preface: "the prime motive has been to make much of the collection known to scholars who might wish to take study of individual pieces further. To this end the publication of mainly unprovenanced engraved gems is of no less importance than that of unprovenanced decorated vases" (pp. 1-2). Although one can only fully agree with the second part of this quote, one cannot also resist the impression that the decision not to offer, with this particular collection, a catalogue raisonné has in the end the bitter taste of an occasion manquée.


1.   The second volume of the series by John Boardman (Classical Phoenician Scarabs: A Catalogue and Study) was also published in 2003, shortly after the work under review.
2.   Intaglios and Rings: Greek, Etruscan and Eastern from a Private Collection (London, 1975).
3.   As a consequence some of these gems have already been published in the past, information duly recorded in the commentary attached to each piece: e.g., no. 31 (pp. 8-9) was already to be found in JB's own Greek Gems and Finger Rings (London, 1970; new expanded ed. London, 2001) pl. 562, while no. 88 (p. 15) had been published by S.H. Middleton in her Engraved Gems from Dalmatia (Oxford, 1991) no. 147.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:17, Friday, 03 April 2009