Friday, 13 January 2012

Stories from The Collection #2 – ‘Roman Bacchus intaglio ring‘ & ‘Anglo Saxon cloisonné insect pendant’

This is the second in a series of posts about the archaeological objects in the collections of The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire.

This article was published in the Winter 2011 issue of ‘Lincolnshire Past and Present’ magazine, published by the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

For this issue’s trip into the museum vaults, we will examine two interesting pieces of jewellery, a Roman ring and an Anglo Saxon pendant.  The fashion of adorning oneself with valuable items is of course nothing new - through the desire to display wealth and status, show political or religious allegiance or simply attempt to appear more attractive.

Roman intaglio ring
Late 1st Century BC / 1st Century AD

This early Roman silver ring contains a finely carved carnelian intaglio with an image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.  Before discussing the intaglio’s imagery in more detail, the early date of the ring is worthy of note.  The issue of how quickly and completely the native Britons succumbed to Roman ways is complicated, but the classical imagery of this ring suggests that its owner had adopted Roman religion, or at least wished to make an outward show to that effect.  Perhaps the original owner was not British at all, but an official who had come across from the continent, bringing his ring, perhaps itself an heirloom, with him?

The pale orange carnelian intaglio shows the standing figure of Bacchus (on the right), draped about his lower half and with a thyrsus (a pinecone-topped staff) in his extended left hand.  His head is turned to the right to observe a naked satyr, who is bending away from Bacchus, but has his head turned back to face the god.  The satyr holds something in his hand, which may represent a pedum (a shepherd’s crook).  A similar intaglio is known from Vienna, but in that example Bacchus is naked, and has a panther at his feet.

The cult of Bacchus is well attested in Britain, with hundreds of examples of Bacchic imagery to be found on mosaics, ceramics and on jewellery.  The Lincolnshire museum collections feature a ring from Lincoln with a grotesque theatrical head which may have Bacchic connections, but this is the first item from Lincolnshire that the museum has acquired which features the clear image of the god.  The ring forms one of a growing collection of objects from Lincolnshire which display such classical religious imagery.

The ring was discovered at Revesby, and was purchased with the kind assistance of the Friends of Lincoln Museums and Art Gallery.

Anglo Saxon pendant
6th or early 7th Century

This stunning gold and cloisonné garnet pendant was discovered near Horncastle in 2003.  Anglo Saxon art is resplendent with examples of subtle animal imagery and this brooch is a superb example, being in the form of an insect, with flared wings and semi-circular and triangular cells to represent the face.  A perforated bi-conical bead was used to suspend the pendant from a chain.

This pendant is more complicated than it might appear, however, as it is actually the combination of craftsmanship from 2 centuries apart.  The cloisonné inlay has fish-scale like cells.  This form of cell is rare, being known on only two other items in Europe, both of which date to the 5th Century.  The first is a saddle fitting in the form of an eagle from Romania, the second a fish-shaped brooch from Switzerland.

In contrast, the elegant bi-conical suspension bead is a 7th Century form.  It appears, therefore, that this pendant represents a piece of 5th Century European cloisonné work converted into a pendant in 7th Century England.  Evidence of this amalgamation can be seen at the terminals of the cloisonné wings.  One is rounded, but the other had already lost its terminal cell before re-use.  The 7th Century craftsman simply put his new gold surround around the remaining contour, creating a flatter terminal.  No doubt such incorporation of older workmanship made the pendant an item of even greater significance to its 7th Century owner.

The pendant was purchased with the kind assistance of the Art Fund, the Headley Trust, the V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of Lincoln Museums and Art Gallery.

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