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Intaglio - Argos standing by the prow of a ship

Argos standing by the prow of a ship

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    19th century (altered)
    400-300 BC (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The art of engraving gemstones can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 8th century BC and earlier. Techniques passed down to the Egyptians and then to the Romans. There were major revivals of interest in engraved gems in Europe during the Byzantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jewelled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment. This intaglio probably originally formed the flat face of an engraved gem in the form of a scarab beetle. The scarab is an ancient symbol dating back to around 8,000 BC and associated with re-birth and eternal life. For the ancient Egyptians, the scarab beetle pushing the ball of dung containing its eggs was a metaphor for the daily passage of the sun across the sky, and thus for the concept of rebirth. Carved scarabs exist from giants 15 metres long and 9 metres high, to tiny amulets used as charms or in burials, and seal stones or ornaments for personal use. Materials used vary according to perceived properties of the stone, or intended use. The popularity of scarabs as charms and ornaments persisted, and they continued to be made, the skill passing from Egypt to Greece, and thence to Italy. The style of the carving of this intaglio places it in Etruria (today Northern Italy) between 400 and 300 BC. The subject is taken from Greek mythology. Argos (or Argus) the ship-builder, stands next to his ship the Argo, which carried Jason and the Argonauts on their perilous voyage from Greece to capture the Golden Fleece.

During the nineteenth century classical art enjoyed a revival, as seen in painting, sculpture and architecture as well as jewellry, fashionable dress and literature. The re-mounting of the intaglio in a simple ring setting during the nineteenth century marks the transition of the object into an item of high fashion, signifying status and refined taste in the period of the classical revival. Neo-classical rings were popularly worn by both men and women on several fingers and on both joints of the finger during this era.

Physical description

Upright oval intaglio, cut from a translucent brownish-red carnelian. Depicting the naked male figure of Argos standing at left, facing right. He is bare-headed with long curlign hair. His left arm lies against his side, towards his back. His right arm is not visible. He is leaning forward, his right leg raised and his right foot resting on the front part of a ship. His left leg rests on the ground. The prow of the ship resembles a bird's head with hooked beak. Sloping hatched border. In gold ring.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)


19th century (altered)
400-300 BC (made)


Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone


Height: 10 mm approximate, Width: 8.5 mm approximate

Object history note

Formerly in the collection of Bram Hertz and acquired by the Liverpool collector Joseph Mayer Mayer was a professional jeweller and collector born in Newcastle and later based in Liverpool where he was apprenticed as a jeweller and also founded the Egyptian Museum in 1852). This intaglio was sold at Sotheby's in 1859 in the sale by Mayer of what had been the Bram Hertz collection, and acquired by Chaffers for Matthew Uzielli (1805-60). It was subsequently bought by the Museum, together with five other engraved gems, at or following the Matthew Uzielli Sale, Christie's London, April 12-20 1861, lot 1141. Matthew Uzielli was a wealthy banker, railway magnate and a celebrated collector of paintings and decorative art, for whom John Charles Robinson (the first curator of the South Kensington Museum) sometimes bought objects. Together with the Prince Consort, Uzielli was the major guarantor of the 1862 International Exhibtion.

Historical significance: For similar intaglio see 'Classical Gems: Ancient and Modern Intaglios and Cameos in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge' by Martin Henig, 1994, p.33, no.52.

Descriptive line

Intaglio, oval carnelian, depicting Argos standing by the prow of a ship, from the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Etruscan, ca. 300-400 BC, set in gold ring of 19th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1861 In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 33
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 1, pp. 34/35
Sale catalogue Various works of art forming the collection of the late Matthew Uzielli, Christie's London, April 12-20, 1861, lot 1141.
Catalogue of the Hertz Collection, 1851, no. 788.
Catalogue of the celebrated and well-known collection of Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Indian, Peruvian, Mexican and Chinese antiquities, formed by B. Hertz... now the property of Joseph Mayer.., Sotheby's, February 1859, lot 2021.
Robinson, J.C., Catalogue of the Various Works of Art forming the Collection of Matthew Uzielli, Esq. of Hanover House, Regent's Park, London, London, 1860, No. 668a, pl. 5.

Production Note

The intaglio is Etruscan in a later (19th-century) gold-ring setting

Attribution note: Machell Cox says that this is a cut-down scarab, the face only remaining. Brownish-red translucent chalcedony


Carnelian; Gold; Chalcedony; Gemstone; Microquartz


Gem engraving

Subjects depicted



Jewellery; Sculpture; Myths & Legends


Sculpture Collection

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