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Intaglio - Head of a Roman emperor

Head of a Roman emperor

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    1st century CE (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone; Reddish brown sard. Set in a small gold ring

  • 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. This tiny intaglio depicts the head of a Roman emperor, possibly Tiberius or Drusus. It dates from the early years of the first century of the Christian era.

Physical description

Small vertical oval intaglio. Depicting the head of a Roman emperior in profile facing right.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)


1st century CE (made)



Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone; Reddish brown sard. Set in a small gold ring


Height: 7 mm approximate, Width: 6 mm approximate

Object history note

Ex Waterton Collection. Bought by the Museum following inclusion in Christie's sale (undated, not held), lot 46. Edmund Waterton (1830-87) is referred to as one of a group of 'pioneer collectors' by Diana Scarisbrick, 'C.D.E. Fortnum as a collector of rings and gems', C.D.E. Fortnum and the collecting and study of applied arts and sculpture in Victorian England, Ed: Ben Thomas and Timothy Wilson, 1999. His collection of approximately 760 rings, formed with the aim of illustrating the history of rings of all period and types, was acquired by the Museum in 1871 and 1899. Waterton, in 1868 'of Walton Castle, near Wakefield, in the county of York, but now residing at Ostend in the Kingdom of Belgium', got into financial difficulties, and was later to be declared bankrupt. The collection of rings was held as security against a loan by the jeweller Robert Phillips for two years from March of that year. The loan was to be repaid by Waterton by March 1870, but the deadline was not met. Phillips having first contacted the Museum regarding the possible purchase of the rings in 1869, the purchase was recommended by the Board of the Museum in a minute of 20 April 1871. The majority of the rings are held in Metalwork Section, a small number in Sculpture Section.

Historical significance: Waterton, in his manuscript catalogue of his collection Dactyliotheca, suggests and cites others such as King who have suggested, that such a small ring may have been too small even for a child, but could have decorated the statuette of a household god.

Historical context note

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

Descriptive line

Intaglio, oval sard, set in a gold ring, depicting head of Roman emperor, possibly Tiberius or Drusus, Italy, 1-100 CE

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

List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington, Acquired During the Year 1871, Arranged According to the Dates of Acquisition. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., p. 38
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 1, p. 57
Edmund Waterton, Dactyliotheca Watertoniana: a descriptive catalogue of the finger-rings in the collection of Mrs. Waterton, (manuscript), written at Walton Castle, 1866, possibly that at top of p. 68

Production Note

Ring ca. 1750-1800

Attribution note: Reddish brown chalcedony. Formerly incorrectly identified as garnet. Checked using magnification and polariscope. J Whalley 20/5/09


Sard; Gemstone; Microquartz




Jewellery; Sculpture; Gemstones


Sculpture Collection

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