What makes jewellery so special are the stories they can tell. This is especially true when it comes to ancient jewellery and more specifically ancient rings. Finger rings are found in archaeology as early as the third millennium BC in the Indus Valley Civilisation. These early rings were just the start of what has become a millennia long love affair between people and rings! Throughout ancient cultures we find rings worn by all members of society; men, women, rich, poor, northern, southern, their popularity remains regardless! In this article we’re going to run you through some of the main types of ancient rings and tell you the intriguing histories behind them.
Intaglio rings are some of the most popular rings from the ancient past. Inspired by the seals of Ancient Mesopotamia, their main purpose was for signing documents. Although many cultures used seals on rings, the Romans and Greeks are perhaps the most famous users. For example, Pliny is recorded as telling us that seal rings – both with stone intaglios or just a gold bezel – were used from as early as the reign of Claudius Caesar. The examples with stone intaglio are most intriguing as they show personal wealth and taste. Each engraved stone intaglio is individual because were used as identifiers. Therefore, they’re a brilliant ancient ring to collect and wear. You know that no one else will have one like you!
Just as intaglio rings worked as identifiers, religious rings were used to show religious and sometimes political affiliation. We see gods depicted on rings from as early as the Ancient Egyptians. However, a large swathe of the examples come from Ancient Greece. These rings could have particular religious implications. For example, jewellery like rings with Eros, Aphrodite or erotic scenes could have been worn to show involvement in related cult religious practices.
The Romans similarly adorned many rings with myth and religious figures. Take this ring with the myth of Leda and the Swan as an example. Similarly to Greek jewellery, it could show personal religious devotion or wider ideas of culture and identity. As well as showing traditional gods, Roman jewellery could also allude to the superstitio (superstition) elements of their belief. For example, the embodiment of the divine phallus was worn on rings to help ward off evil spirits.
Finally, rings were worn to show belief in both Christianity and Judaism. Before the adoption of the Christian church as the official religion of the Roman empire, Jewish communities held important economic and social roles in the Roman world. Therefore, they could feel proud of their beliefs and we find rings with menorah and Stars of David showing this. They would have worn them as signs of religious devotion and identification. Then, as the Byzantine Empire grows and jewellery wearing increases, we see lots of rings with Christian symbols emerge. These rings could be signs of piety but also as political pieces to prove the desired religious belief. The wearing of Christian jewellery only increases when we reach the Crusades. This is because soldiers wanted to have identifiers so if they were to be killed in battle, they knew whether to give them a Christian or Muslim burial.
Rings with Gem Stones
Another way to show status in the ancient past, just like today, was through rings with gem stones in them. We see this in the senators of the Roman state who might receive the rings from the emperor as a token of respect or to help represent Rome when they went on diplomatic trips. Indeed, well cut gemstones have long represented prosperity from trade with other nations. This is no more so true than in Viking Cultures. For Viking individuals, wearing a stone from a foreign land often represented personal triumph in trade or plundering missions.
Another ancient culture that put a lot of importance into gem stones were the Byzantine Empire. An empire rich with material wealth, the wearing of jewellery was very common and part of this was the wearing of gemstones. Within their culture, these stones represent wealth but also had their own meanings. It was thought that individual stones had powers of protection. One example of this is that the amethyst was supposed to stop an individual from getting drunk. The Byzantines also developed more complex ways of cutting gem stones than we had seen before them. This allows beautiful rings, like this Byzantine ring with Pyramid cut stone, to be made.
Alongside rings that displayed status and religious belief, rings have long been used to express love. We find wedding rings as early as the Romans and Greeks and other examples of more casual expressions. For the Greeks, we see depictions of the aforementioned Aphrodite and Eros. Why Aphrodites? Well, Aphrodite was inextricably linked with fertility, love and marriage. Therefore, her image on a ring was seen as a lucky token for a bride. As they often do, the Romans then picked up the tradition from the Greeks and made it their own. They had some interesting interpretations of the idea. For example, we see women being given ‘key’ rings that remind them they are now the lady of the house. However, we do see more informal examples. For example rings like those with a finger and thumb pulling an ear were worn to say ‘remember me’ when a love one had to go on a journey.
As time moves on, we see an increase in wedding rings as a way to celebrate a couple’s union. One of the most unique styles we see are the Tudor wedding rings from the 14th to 16th Century. Many were made with gems and gold bands, as we see today. However, some of the most evocative are those designed around the holding of two hands. Although we find gold examples, these rings were generally made of silver or pewter. Therefore, it’s likely they were worn by the everyday, poorer, couple. Finally, they often feature heart embellishments and overall show a clear symbol of love we still recognise today.
How to Authenticate Ancient Rings?
As with any ancient artefact, knowing a piece’s authenticity is important. Firstly, you must always aim to buy through a well-known gallery or auction house – like us Pax Romana Auctions. When you purchase from a reputable gallery, you know the ring has been examined by an expert. You also know that it would have been bought from a reputable and trust worthy source. When considering what gallery to buy from, looking for a Certificate of Authenticity it also a must. This is because it means you have assurance of the gallery’s belief in the authenticity of the item. Finally, you could consider having an XRF test done. This is a non-invasive X-Ray test to see the composition of metals. It can then tell the owner if the item has trace elements from a modern or other than described period. Many galleries will sell items that have already undergone XRF testing. Look for ‘XRF’ tags in titles and descriptions to learn more.
If you’d be interested in purchasing ancient rings, why not check out our auction catalogue and gallery collections below?