Glyptic art, the craft of gem carving, was developed in prehistoric cultures, but by the 7th millennium BC it had developed into a highly sophisticated industry in the Indus Valley Civilization, with international trade flourishing from the mid-fourth to late second millennium BC. As in other civilized societies, whether ancient or modern, gems engraved as sealstones and personal signets were not only ornamental adornments, but also were objects of indispensible utility, which, impressed into wax or clay, represented a notarial imprimatur on business and bureaucratic transactions, or a legal signature or personal identification, not unlike a driver’s license or ID card today. The “device” or engraved part of a gem customarily was cut to read backwards in the stone, so that the engraving such as a signature or portrait would read right in the impression. An especially pretty or interesting-looking stone might be reserved for carving by only the best carver or only for the most important patrons. Pyrgoteles, for example, was the only gem cutter authorized to engrave the likeness of Alexander the Great in the rare gemstone, smaragdos (a green-colored stone from which the term for the modern beryl variety “emerald” is derived).

Art historians, archaeologists and connoisseurs have examined ancient texts – anonymously carved Mesopotamian inscriptions, Theophrastus’s On Stones, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History – as well as archaeological literature to inform our current understanding of the importance of gems and glyptic art in antiquity. From these texts scholars have inferred the gem varieties that were known in antiquity, their origins, and enhancement techniques that may have been applied to them intentionally by the ancient lapidary to improve or otherwise alter their appearance. The iconography or subject matter depicted in engraved gems, or intaglios, has been the primary focus of study.

Gemological and analytical study has been limited. Instead, the material attributes published on ancient gems have been reported anecdotally in journals, papers, and books, repeating for centuries erroneous interpretations of corrupt texts or observations based on sight alone, without the benefit of analytical verification.

Peri Lithon, or On Stones, written in the fourth century B.C. by Theophrastos, is the most important text about gems of the Classical world. It is the earliest scientific treatise on any subject extant in western literature and is the antecedent of our modern scientific system of classification. Although it survives only as a fragmentary book, On Stones presents a taxonomy of the gems known in ancient times, describing their origins, physical properties, and magical or other special attributes. Gemological study offers an illuminating perspective on the ancient literature and a re-assessment of archaeological literature, enabling correction of some inaccurate information and clearer rendering of opaque passages, particularly concerning gemstone origins and the nature of accidental alterations effected through burial, for example, or treatments applied intentionally to gems by the ancient lapidary.

Various analytical techniques are used in gemstone identification, when standard gemological techniques prove inconclusive. A technique that has been employed for many decades is powder X-Ray Diffraction (powder XRD) analysis. Identification of an unknown sample is accomplished by comparing its crystalline structure against a reference base of known minerals.

Raman spectroscopy is being used increasingly to identify gemstones, employing a reference base of known gem spectra for comparison with unknown samples. Both qualitative techniques, such as X-Ray Fluorescence spectroscopy, and quantitative techniques, such as electron microprobe analysis, are useful in treatment detection and provenance studies, respectively.



thoresen: map of gem producing-regions known in antiquity

Many gems and their sources are described in ancient texts, notably Peri Lithon, by Theophrastus. The Periplus Maris Erythraei is a seafarer’s first-hand chronicle describing the routes of trade, ports of call, and goods acquired during a merchant ship’s long journey originating at a Red Sea port, venturing down the east coast of Africa and across the open sea to India’s Malabar Coast and, finally, home again. The Periplus probably was written sometime between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. Although fragmentary, it is one of the most important ancient texts that offers first-hand insight into the scope of trade and sea travel in the late Classical world. The brief account includes gemstones in the inventory of exotic goods acquired.


Ancient and archaeological references offer insufficient details to infer with certainty the identity of all the gems known in ancient times or their specific sources. In fact, very few of the gem localities that were exploited in antiquity are known today with certainty. Sometimes, however, the gemstones themselves can offer clues about their origins. Some gems such as garnets have a distinctive chemical composition and crystalline structure that make possible associating them with their sources. Other gems contain characteristic internal features, or inclusions, that tend to link them with a high degree of probability to a particular gem-producing region. The characteristic angular three-phase inclusions often observed in Colombian emeralds, are a well-documented example.



The treatment or enhancement of gemstones and treatment detection is an important topic in gemology today, but it has been largely overlooked in relation to gems of the ancient world. Although gemstone treatments in antiquity do not rival the sophistication of some of the techniques employed to enhance gems today, detection of them is no less challenging. Archaeological and ancient literature describe treatment techniques that ancient lapidaries employed to produce imitations or to improve the appearance of natural gemstones; however, empirical evidence that corroborates the textual references have been examined infrequently.

Some gem enhancement techniques used today, such as heating, sugar-treatment, quench-crackling, and dyeing, have been passed down over many centuries, the techniques changing little since antiquity. The pyrotechnology developed to deepen the color or intensify the banded patterns of quartzes is quite old, and is one of the most sophisticated and earliest technological achievements of the Indus Valley civilization, dating to the seventh millennium B.C. Controlled heating, for example, is a simple technique that changes purple amethysts into pale grayish green prasiolites or, with further heating, into yellow citrines, which are quite rare in nature.



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