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date: 28 November 2022

seals, sealstones, and signet ringsfree

seals, sealstones, and signet ringsfree

  • Judith Weingarten


Seals are small semiprecious and common stones cut into standard shapes, polished, pierced, and then engraved with ornamental patterns, figures, or, more rarely, inscriptions. When pressed into clay or wax, the seal leaves a legible impression in relief. An important subgroup of seals is metal rings with engraved bezels that can be viewed both on the ring and in relief. A seal’s basic function is as an identity device but it can also be worn as conspicuous jewellery. While the stones themselves were ascribed magical and therapeutic properties, their primary use in ancient societies was to secure property, whether in the home or the public arena, either to assign responsibility or to authenticate or witness documents by leaving the imprint of an individual who is identified by the seal’s impression.


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

The history of seals in Greece is long but not continuous. Clay seals appeared in the earliest Neolithic, carved with simple linear designs and were probably intended for imprinting cloth or decorating pottery.1 These disappeared from Greece by the Middle Neolithic. True seals, meant for sealing, did not appear until well into the Early Bronze Age. An estimated 200,000 seals in hard and soft stones were produced during the whole Aegean Bronze Age, a quantity that underlines the importance of glyptic (the broad term that describes the art of carving sealstones) in their societies.2

The art of seal-engraving disappeared before the end of the Bronze Age and only revived, with varied seal forms made of soft materials in the later Geometric period. The techniques of working hard stones were relearned in the mid-6th century. In the Archaic and Classical periods, gem devices were usually simple but, later, and throughout the Hellenistic age, glyptic taste followed the aesthetic trends of the major arts towards greater realism; finally, late Hellenistic glyptic fashions were adopted by the Romans of the early empire.

Aegean Bronze Age Seals and Sealings

Seals appeared at about the same time on the Greek mainland and Crete and in the Cyclades. The form chosen was—and always remained—the stamp seal, also used in Anatolia in the 3rd millennium, rather than the Near Eastern cylinder seals. On the mainland, seals first appeared in the latter part of Early Helladic II: made mostly of bone or wood, these bore quite complicated and symmetrical motifs: thirty-four sites have produced seals, including three large groups of seal impressions—Lerna, Petri near Nemea, and Geraki.3

After widespread destructions at the end of Early Helladic II, glyptic disappeared from mainland Greece. On Crete, on the contrary, seal carving flourished without interruption from Early Minoan II onwards. A variety of stamp seals in soft materials appeared, often displaying quite sophisticated and complex motifs; many followed compositional schemes which become characteristic of Minoan art.4

With the introduction of the horizontal bow-lathe in Middle Minoan IIB, engravers were able to work hardstones, which led to a colourful range of semiprecious sealstones without parallel in ancient world. On the north of the island, bureaucrats used new prismatic hardstone seals, sometimes inscribed with the Cretan Hieroglyphic script, for administrative purposes. In the south, along with the first Linear A tablets, thousands of stamped clay sealings from the palace of Phaistos testify to a storeroom management system comparable to that of a Near Eastern palace: most seals bore geometric or interlace designs but almost 22 per cent newly depicted plants, animals, and even human figures; impressions show that many were already made of hardstones, as well as seventeen metal rings.5

Neopalatial glyptic shows steadily improved engraving with animated and lifelike images of animals and humans, sometimes placed in landscapes reminiscent of Minoan fresco painting. While gemstones are sharply skewed to depictions of animals (c. 85 per cent), human subjects appear particularly on gold rings, in vivid scenes of hunting, fighting, chariot driving, bull leaping, and cult activities. The imposing imagery of the best of those rings indicates a palatial workshop, probably at Knossos.

Minoan seals appear at Mycenae near the end of Middle Helladic III in tombs of Grave Circle B (CMS I 5, 6, 7)6 and a little later, there are three gold cushion-shaped seals in Grave Circle A (Shaft Grave III: CMS I 9, 10, 11)— magnificent works of Minoan glyptic art.7 The spectacular unplundered Late Helladic IIA “Tomb of the Griffin Warrior” at Pylos contained Minoan gold rings—three cult scenes and one of bull leaping—and a Minoan agate amygdaloid depicting heroic combat, engraved in astonishing detail.8

Following the Mycenaean conquest of Crete in Late Minoan II–III, many compositions take new directions, such as animal pairs symmetrically reversed and mirror image poses, and emblematic themes, most strikingly the Minotaur – perhaps the origin of the best-known Cretan myth. Shortly before the final destruction of Knossos (Late Minoan IIIA2), the so-called “Rhodian Hunt” style of glyptic emerged: seals of this group were afterwards found on other islands and the Greek mainland, the last hardstone seals to be made in the prehistoric Aegean.9

During the Late Helladic III palatial period, the Mycenaeans of the mainland valued hardstone seals but apparently produced few of their own, reusing and being buried with heirloom Minoan seals and metal rings made before the destruction of Knossos. It seems likely that Mycenaean craftsmen did manufacture gold rings, but it remains devilishly difficult to separate Cretan from mainland work.10 Seal engraving in the Aegean ends with the Mainland Popular group of softstones with schematic linear images, which are almost never used administratively.11

Glyptic in Greece from the Geometric period to the Hellenistic Age

The gem-cutting tradition was lost during the so-called Dark Ages.12 As a result of renewed contact between the Aegean and the East in the Geometric period, c. 850 bce, stamp seals of soft materials started to be manufactured: ivory/bone (the earliest from a grave on the Areopagus in Athens), large square limestone plaques with geometric figures (central Greece and islands), and pale green serpentine stamp seals (the “Island Gems,” notably Melian). Various 7th- and 6th-century schools were inspired, as were the “Island Gems” group, by finds of Bronze Age seals which they partly imitated in shape and subject matter, or were inspired by the East (ivories).13

All-metal rings with intaglio devices were again being made in the Greek world from the end of the 7th century on, some of gold, more commonly of bronze or silver. They were engraved by direct cutting with hand tools (drills were not used on metal bezels) and set in gold or silver swivel hoops. One finely worked type of hoop, with lions gripping the bezel, was used for both metal bezels and for holding gemstones worn as finger rings.

Mastery of carving hardstones was achieved in the first half of the 6th century. The bow-drill, along with the scarab (beetle) shape was probably adopted from Phoenician gem-engravers at that time. The earliest hardstone scarabs were made by the “Gorgon-Horse” group, combining Greek myth and eastern-inspired iconography, in scenes such as a Greek Medusa’s head on a horse’s body. In the middle and later 6th century, the “Island Scarab” group produced scarabs, again in the distinctive pale green serpentine: cut entirely by hand, they achieved a greater depth of modelling, creating a more sculptural effect. Two “Island Scarab” engravers—Onesimus and Syries—were the first to sign their gems, which shows that the work of individual artists was already starting to be distinguished and appreciated.The scarab later developed into the scaraboid, a plainer version with a shallow domed back.

Late Archaic gem engraving was dominated by two named artists: Epimenes, who adapted poses from contemporary relief sculpture and vase painting, notably the twisting three-quarter figure seen from behind; and the engraver “of Semon” (cautiously, “the Semon Master”), characterized by highly detailed anatomy of humans and winged beasts, and distinctive heads with thick noses.

Gems and finger rings of the Classical period (5th4th centuries) are found throughout the Greek world from Italy to Persia. Large scaraboids are the most popular shape. Finger rings with metal or stone bezels were worn as jewellery as well as for the purposes of sealing. The worship of the male body is evident in the many depictions of standing men, often a single figure carefully placed at the gem’s centre, but a few images of naked or clothed females now also appear. A sapphire scaraboid depicting two women—a mistress seated with her body three-quarters towards the front and her maid approaching with a mirror and a wreath—is signed by the engraver Dexamenus (middle 5th century or a little later). Three more gems signed by Dexamenus include the portrait head of an ageing man, possibly the earliest depicting a particular person rather than an idealized figure. An agate barrel-shape seal also attributed to Dexamenus, depicts the genre scene of a boxer with his weight shifted onto one leg in the new Classical pose.

Glyptic in the Hellenistic period—from the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the successor kingdoms at the end of the 4th century until the Romans controlled the whole Mediterranean (end of the 1st century bce)—continues the Greek tradition with only slight changes in technique, forms, and subjects, into the fully “classicizing” period of early Roman art. The most distinctive gem shape is a large oval ringstone: longer ovals for standing figures—females often leaning on pillars (Aphrodite types) or softly modelled and effeminate male deities, especially Apollo and Dionysus, with circular stones for busts or heads. Real portraits of illustrious persons (albeit somewhat idealized) appear on gems for the first time, sometimes commissioned from named artists. Alexander was said to have only allowed the engraver Pyrgoteles to carve his portrait (Pliny HN 37.1–4). Hellenistic kings and queens were often portrayed with divine attributes.

Elites connected with Hellenistic royal courts collected engraved gems for their displays of precious objects and for elite gift-giving.14 The philosopher Theophrastus (d. 287 bce) described in De lapidibus a range of precious stones almost without fable and magic, presumably unlike earlier writers. Until recently, his text and, later, Pliny’s NH 37 were virtually the only surviving ancient writings on gemstones. A newly discovered papyrus, however, preserves 112 brief poems or epigrams arguably by the mid-3rd-century poet Posidippus of Pella. It begins with a long section of poems about gemstones—a mine of gemmological and social information: Epigram 5, for example, describes the stone and names the engraver, client, and the lady who receives the gift.15

Timanthes carved this starry lapis lazuli, a soft Persian stone with golden flecks for Demylus, and in return for a gentle kiss, gave it as a gift to dark-haired Nikaia of Kos.

Few seal impressions were found in the Classical period (mostly commonly on loomweights); in contrast, there are some twenty Hellenistic sealing deposits from very varied contexts: for example, more than 25,000 sealings in Seleucia’s official archive, approximately 27,500 in a merchant’s house in Delos, more than 2,000 from an administrative centre in Tel Kedesh in the Upper Galilee, approximately 750 from a temple archive at Edfu, and 35 from a small household in Elephantine.16

The principle gem-cutting innovation of the period was the invention of the cameo or relief gem, which, not being cut in intaglio, could not be used for sealing. Cameos, often set on finger rings or pendants, were highly favoured as jewellery in Roman imperial court circles. The Emperor Augustus was knowledgeable enough about gems to poke fun at his sexually flamboyant friend Maecenas and closes a letter to him with a remarkable joke:

Farewell, sweetheart of the world, [little honey?], ivory from Etruria, silphium of Arezzo, diamond from up north, Tiberine pearl, the Cilnians’ emerald, jasper of the potters, beryl of Porsenna, carbuncle . . . hope you get one! [a play on “carbuncle” as both the red stone and a venereal pustule]—to sum it all up, you [softie for] adulteresses.17

In contrast to the supple, somewhat impressionistic treatment of Hellenistic gems from Greece and the east, the style of the best early empire gems display a dry and shallow-cut precision matching contemporary classicizing Roman art in clay and stone. Most of the signatures on gems of the early Roman period are in Greek and with Greek names. Such was Dioskourides, gem-cutter to the Emperor Augustus. Dioskourides may have engraved the emperor’s second seal, the image of Alexander the Great (the emperor first used gemstones originally belonging to his mother, with the image of a sphinx), more appropriate for the master of the world; and he certainly cut Augustus’ third signet with the emperor’s own portrait; that portrait, Pliny tells us (NH 37.4), was used ever since by the Roman emperors, rather like a seal of state.18 Whatever the changes in patronage or iconography, the Greek tradition in gem-engraving was still treasured in the early empire, the gems appreciated equally as functional seals and as sparkling jewels.


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  • Becker, Nadine. Die Goldenen Siegelringe der Ägäischen Bronzezeit. Heidelberg, Germany: Heidelberg University Publishing, 2018.
  • Boardman, John. Greek Gems and Finger Rings. Oxford: Thames & Hudson, 1970.
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  • Makkay, James. Early Stamp Seals in South-East Europe. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1984.
  • Petrain, David. “Gems, Metapoetics, and Value: Greek and Roman Responses to a Third-Century Discourse on Precious Stones.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 135 (2005): 329–357.
  • Plantzos, Dimitris. Hellenistic Engraved Gems. Oxford: Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology, 1999.
  • van Oppen de Ruiter, B.F., and R. Wallenfels, editors. Hellenistic Sealings & Archives. Turnhout, Belgium: Studies in Classical Archaeology 10, 2021.
  • Yule, P.Early Cretan Seals. Mainz, Germany: Marburger Studien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Bd. 4, 1981.