The purpose of a seal ring in the ancient world was, in essence, that of a modern signature. The images engraved upon them were totally unique and so were associated with specific individuals. They acted almost as a fingerprint – a seal stamp lent authority for the authenticity of a document or letter. As is to be expected, according to personal wealth, some examples are fairly low quality, but some are exceptionally intricate and detailed.
A variety of materials were used for the purpose – in the higher quality examples of the Greek and Roman worlds we find cabochon and sardonyx. These stones are fairly soft, and so it was easier for cutters to engrave them. Another advantage of these stones was that wax wouldn’t get stuck to them. The carving tends to be very shallow on account of the bezel’s size and the ring’s purpose. The method for engraving these rings and stones is known as intaglio – an image is cut onto a surface and these cuts and incisions either hold ink or shape wax.
In the Greco-Roman world we see some more simple seal rings, those made from bronze with flat bezels and an inscribed intaglio, and also some fantastically complex and intricate examples. The Eros and Psyche ring (AS-3193) alludes to a complex mythical background and keys into the iconographical tradition surrounding the tale, namely representing Psyche as a butterfly and giving Eros his typical attributes. We have instances of mythological seal stones in the Roman world as well, perhaps most famously the Felix Gem, currently on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. There are a number of these types in our collection as well, such as the Ring of the Dioscuri (EH-122). Some Roman seals are portraits (for example AS-3373), further playing into the sense of identity tied up with a seal stone.
This tradition continues into the medieval world, and here we find some truly extraordinary examples of the type. The seals of the medieval world reflect historical and religious changes – in accordance with the shift away from the mythology of the Greco-Roman canon, we find on them the iconography of saints. These can be fantastically intricate, with words often incised as well. This marks a further development in the techniques for intaglio – in the Roman world, only the very finest and most expensive rings would ever have any wording, but as time went on, it became an increasingly achievable feat.
Seal rings, aside from their aesthetic value, give us an insight into every day lives – a side of history we don’t often get to explore. They show us what a person wanted to be associated with, how they wanted to be perceived by others and thus what they valued and thought to be important, allowing us to better understand the zeitgeists of the past.
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