Two Tiny Roman Treasures

A guest blog-post by …

Ian Marshman,

School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester

I made the not-too-taxing train journey from Leicester to Leeds to take a look at two unusual silver finger rings in the museum’s collections. Both date to the late Roman period and came from the countryside about 10 miles west of modern Leeds.

The first ring (below) was uncovered during excavations at one of the wealthiest settlements in Roman West Yorkshire, the villa at Dalton Parlours (near Boston Spa). It was found at the bottom of a deep well, which the owner’s used as their main source of water. The ring shows signs of having been deliberately broken, and it may have been thrown down the well as an offering. Its owner might have hoped the gift would persuade the gods’ to keep the new well full of clean water, or perhaps just to get good luck! The ring is made of silver and is set with a piece of marbled glass moulded with the image of a ‘stick man’ holding a staff or spear. We can’t be sure what its owner thought of the figure, but it may been a warrior god such as Mars.

The second ring (below) was found by a local metal detectorist who was searching in the fields near the A1(M) not far from Micklefield. He promptly reported it to a member of the Portable Antiquities Scheme so that it could be recorded on their database. Since it was more than 300 years old and made of silver, the ring was declared ‘Treasure’ and donated to Leeds City Museum. This ring would have been much more valuable than the one from Dalton Parlours because it was set with an engraved carnelian gemstone. Gems like this came from right across the Roman Empire from the Sahara desert and even India. The intricate engraving shows the goddess Fortuna holding a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and steering a ruder, and would have been cut by a skilled craftsman – evidently with very good eyesight! Signet rings like this were used for sealing documents, and by choosing an image of Fortuna, its owner could express their wishes of good fortune whenever they sent a letter or signed a contract. The gem is rather worn and it must have been used for a long time, and was probably an heirloom by the time it was lost in the fields near Micklefield.

My PhD research has involved cataloguing Roman signet rings like these from right across Britain. By doing so, I hope to be able to study the way people in different parts of the province chose different images for their seals, and the kinds of messages they might have expressed. The Romans used a huge range of images on their seals, from heroes, gods and goddesses to animals, symbols and scenes from daily life. As well as this I will also be studying the types of gemstones that were popular. This is can be particularly interesting because ancient people believed different gems possessed different magical powers, which could do everything from give luck to a soldier on the battlefield to even preventing drunkenness! These two rings from rural West Yorkshire will be added to those in my database to help me study how people right across Britain used such objects about 1,700 years ago.

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