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Intaglio - Scarab and winged figure

Scarab and winged figure

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    4th century BC (made)
    1850-1900 (altered)

  • Artist/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 Byantine 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. The scarab is an ancient symbol dating back to around 8,000 BC. 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 the intaglio carving of Icarus on the flat underside of this one places it in Italy around 400 BC. In Greek legend, Icarus and his father the craftsman Daedalus, in order to escape imprisonment on Crete, put on wings of Daedalus' making attached to their shoulders with wax. Icarus flew too near to the sun, the wax melted, and he was drowned in the sea.

Physical description

Vertical oval cameo/intaglio. Reddish brown carnelian bead, pierced through and attached to gold ring by wire which passes through the stone, its ends wound round the shank. One side of the gem is domed and carved in the form of a scarab beetle. The other side is flat and depicts a naked winged figure, flying or collapsing, in profile to right. The lower parts of both legs are bent up behind the figure from the knee. Hatched border.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)


4th century BC (made)
1850-1900 (altered)



Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone


Height: 12 mm, Width: 9 mm, Depth: 6 mm

Object history note

Purchased from John Webb. John Webb was a London dealer who travelled and purchased widely in Europe. He placed large numbers of objects including many important ivories on loan at the Museum, selling them to the Museum as funds became available, particularly in the 1860s. Webb had a collection of around 170 pieces of antique jewellery from which around twenty, many containing engraved gems, were eventually selected for purchase by the Museum. The majority are held in the Metalwork collection, 2 in the Sculpture collection.

Historical context note

Engraved gemstones of all dates were widely collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were brought back from Italy by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.

Descriptive line

Cameo in form of a scarab beetle, and on the reverse intaglio of Icarus, oval carnelian, set in gold ring; Italy, 400-300 BC

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

Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1863 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. 53
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 1, pp.33-4

Production Note

The ring ca. 1850-1900

Attribution note: Red translucent chalcedony


Carnelian; Gemstone; Microquartz

Subjects depicted



Jewellery; Sculpture; Myths & Legends


Sculpture Collection

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