history for kids

Gemstones in the Middle Ages Part 2

Who knew gems and handwriting overlapped in medieval times? I didn’t—at least not until doing some research about gems and gem cutting for Kaye 3. How are gems and handwriting connected?

First of all, it’s important to remember that handwriting (and spelling) was far from standardized back then. The distinctive personal signature (like John Hancock’s on the Declaration of Independence) was almost unheard of during the middle ages. But people still needed to write to communicate, to transact business, create contracts, leave property to their family in a will, etc. So one way to protect important documents was to have a skilled craftsman design a distinctive carved stone, usually set in a ring, called an intaglio. The carved out design could then be pressed gently into a puddle of melted wax to seal a folded document, protecting it from prying eyes and proving to its recipient that it was authentic.

Ancient Scroll with Wax Seal 1Stones like amethyst, agate, garnet, onyx, ruby, or beryl were often used for these rings. A skilled carver could take hundreds of hours to carve a detailed design. How? Well, if you’ve ever seen your Mom or Grandma file her nails, using something called an “Emery Board,” you’re on the right track. Emery is an actual mineral, a rock from the earth, that has been mined for over 2000 years on the Greek Island of Naxos. It has been used as an abrasive to polish things by people all over the world, and was used in medieval times to slowly remove areas of the stone’s surface to create the desired design.

Ancient Egyptian Bow Drill
Egyptian bow drill

Of course, there were no power tools back then, so the stonecutter couldn’t use a drill in the sense that we think of them today. But they did have hand operated tools somewhat like a bow drill or a lathe that could be used to speed up some of the less detailed work in carving the gem. However, the most sought-after intaglio artists took few shortcuts and did intricate work that defied forgery.

During the Middle Ages, carved gems were prized not only for their fine designs, but for the beauty of the stone itself. Numerous ancient writers described precious and semi-precious stones and their (believed) natural, supernatural, and even magical qualities. Folks back then believed that wearing such stones protected them from danger. Wealthy people wore them as personal ornaments because they were beautiful

The first known gem collector documented by historians was Mithridates the Great, the Greek king of Pontus (now located in the eastern Black Sea region of Turkey). Since he lived from 134-63 BCE, or over 1100 years before Medieval times began, we can begin to get the sense of how long people have been fascinated by carved gems. When Mithridates was defeated by the Romans, his gem cabinet full of treasures was taken to Rome and offered up as a gift at Capitoline Temple. His impressive collection made the Romans fall in love with the luxury art of gem cutting and carving, and any who were wealthy enough to afford them became collectors. You can see some examples below or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

cross of lothair closeupThe Romans became masters of gem carving techniques. They even developed iron tools tipped with crushed diamonds to help them carve gems. These tools were so valuable and famous that they were exported to China and India and were given as gifts to kings.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, much of the technical knowledge and skills required to create highly detailed carved gems vanished. During the Middle Ages, intricately detailed gem carving was something of a lost art, except in certain areas.

To make up for their lack of skill at gem carving, wealthy people and churches during the Middle Ages collected examples of ancient carved gems from Greek and Roman times and incorporated them into their own medieval art.

An excellent example of this is in this closeup of the Cross of Lothair to the right. The large carved gem at the top is actually a Roman intaglio of Augustus. Two stones below that is a small carved amethyst (purple) depicting three women. If it looks funny to you, that’s because it’s set sideways.

How does this information play into the third Sir Kaye book, Legend of the Forest Beast? Stay tuned!

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