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Ring

  • Place of origin:

    Europe

  • Date:

    1st century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gold formerly set with stones

  • Museum number:

    476-1871

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Snakes have been used in jewellery since the ancient Egyptians. The Nile cobra was a symbol of royalty but the snake used in Greek and Roman jewellery was the non-venomous Asclepian snake (elaphe longissima). Snakes were associated with healing deities such as Isis in Egypt or the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius. They symbolised regeneration, healing and rebirth and therefore were used as a symbol of eternity. The long sinuous form of the snake made it very suitable for use in jewellery, either as a ring or bracelet. Snake jewellery varies from quite elaborately decorated rings such as this one which has been engraved to suggest scales and which would have originally had bright, jewelled eyes, to rather crudely made silver rings such as those found in the Norfolk Snettisham jewellery hoard, now in the British Museum.

This ring forms part of a collection of 760 rings and engraved gems from the collection of Edmund Waterton (1830-87). Waterton was one of the foremost ring collectors of the nineteenth century and was the author of several articles on rings, a book on English devotion to the Virgin Mary and an unfinished catalogue of his collection (the manuscript is now the National Art Library). Waterton was noted for his extravagance and financial troubles caused him to place his collection in pawn with the London jeweller Robert Phillips. When he was unable to repay the loan, Phillips offered to sell the collection to the Museum and it was acquired in 1871. A small group of rings which Waterton had held back were acquired in 1899.

Physical description

Gold serpent ring, the bezel formed by the head and coiled tail, the eyes formerly set with stones

Place of Origin

Europe

Date

1st century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Engraved gold formerly set with stones

Dimensions

Height: 2.3 cm, Width: 2.1 cm, Depth: 1 cm

Object history note

Ex Waterton Collection. Oman refers to a similar ring in the Musee du Louvre Catalogue sommaire des bijoux antiques, 1141; snake ring sold by Bonhams, 13 April 2011 for £7200. The popularity of snake rings in Roman jewellery is shown by the large number found as part of the Snettisham jewellery hoard in 1985. This was the working stock of a Roman jeweller and includes coins, carved gems and rings.

This is an unusually elaborate snake ring. Most surviving snake rings were simple spirals, sometimes terminating in two snake heads. This ring has several coiled loops and cross-hatching to suggest the scales. There is a gold serpent ring in the British Museum (1867,0508.422) which also has looped coils and a cross-hatched section of head and body. The British Museum ring still has one emerald eye whilst the V&A ring has lost both.

A typology for snake rings is proposed in Catherine Johns 'The jewellery of Roman Britain'. This ring most closely resembles type B, V. A ring in the Koch collection (Koch, vol. 1, cat. 120) was found in a hoard at Beaurepaire, France and is also shaped with coiled loops and engraving to suggest scales.

Descriptive line

Gold serpent ring, the bezel formed by the head and coiled tail, the eyes formerly set with stones, Roman, 1st century

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

Bury, Shirley, Introduction to Rings, London, 1984, p.19, fig 19 D
Bury, Shirley, Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982), 32/ D/ 22
Oman, Charles, Catalogue of rings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1930, reprinted Ipswich, 1993, p. 52, cat. 87
Waterton, Edmund Dactyliotheca Watertoniana: a descriptive catalogue of the finger-rings in the collection of Mrs Waterton, (manuscript, 1866, now in National Art Library)
Chadour, Beatriz, Rings: the Alice and Louis Koch Collection, Leeds, 1994

Materials

Gold

Subjects depicted

Serpents (animal); Snakes

Categories

Jewellery; Metalwork

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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