Who hasn’t accidentally lost a precious jewel somewhere and commiserated with those who’ve dropped a ring down a drain, in the sand at the beach, or left in the washroom at a restaurant?
As much as we know not to be so haphazard, it actually happens all too frequently. Turns out this is not a modern calamity – far from it.
Archaeologists have recently unearthed a trove of 2,000 year old gemstones left behind in an ancient Roman bathhouse in Carlisle, England. Throughout the Roman empire, these ancient Romans built public baths as an integral feature within their culture. These facilities, much like modern day spas provided the wealthy Romans with a place to unwind in sweating rooms, exercise spaces, heated pools, while allowing them to socialize, read, and generally refresh.
So when archaeologist Frank Giecco fell upon a horde of gemstones recently, he was amazed and delighted. The gems were discovered hidden inside the ancient drains of a bathhouse near Hadrian’s Wall.
Oops, There it Fell
Why on earth would so many gemstones be lumped together, though? Seems that in the 3rd century BC, intaglio gemstone rings were set in place using a hot vegetable glue. All well and good until the bather spent hours in these searing humid bathhouses. Then the glue that set the stones in place melted causing the gems to fall out of their owner’s rings and straight down the drain.
The more than 30 ancient gemstones found were cut into intaglios, an ancient form of gemstone carving. We are familiar with cameo carvings of course. These can be made of shell or agate – or actually other gems which can be carved in relief. The subject of the carving is cut to raise up from the flat surface of the stone.
Ancient Intaglio Artform
The other type of gem carving is known as intaglio – which is the reverse method from cameo carvings. In the flat surface of the gemstone, cuts are made into the stone so that the entire design lays below its flat surface. This artform used in gemstone carving was not new to the period in which these gems were carved. Intaglio gem carving had its origins some 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
Remember that the wealthy bathers at the Roman baths were important individuals. Their intaglio gems set in rings told of their status, and served double duty as signature implements. Using warm wax or clay, the ring’s owner pressed his intaglio stone onto documents as a seal that became his official signature. These ancient bathers wouldn’t leave home without this important item – wherever and whenever the man’s signature seal was needed, there it is!
A Peek into the Past
This extraordinary find opens a window for modern jewelry lovers to better understand this ancient civilization and discover the gemstones they valued. Among the gems recovered thus far are stones we still favor today. Amethyst, jasper, and carnelian are included in the recovered gems.
The motifs favored in these carvings feature deities dedicated to the sun, to commerce, war, even to luck and fertility. The sizes of these stones range from 0.6 inches all the way down to 0.2 inches. The smaller the carvings the more expert the carver needed to be.
While this find is very exciting to history and jewelry buffs, those 30-some gemstones were not the only items recovered from the ancient drains. Ladies’ hairpins, glass beads, coins and other fascinating artefacts help tell the story of life of the wealthy – way back when.