Etruscan gems: introduction

Hard-stone gem engraving, on scarabs, begins in Etruria in the second half of the 6th century BC, under the immediate influence of Greek Archaic engraving and probably in the hands of Greek artists. Nuances of style point to Ionian engravers, who were also the earliest in the Greek world. Subjects often follow the Greek, but as in other graecizing Etruscan arts there are special preferences for some subjects, not always treated in the same way, or at all, by the Greeks. Interest in the stories of the Seven against Thebes is an obvious example of this. Etruscan inscriptions, mainly names, appear on many stones. They are transliterations or Etruscan equivalents of Greek names and we may sometimes query whether some were chosen for their appeal rather than their specific appropriateness. Greek myth iconography was readily adopted by Etruscans but not always completely understood, or it is given a somewhat different narrative. There is little which seems to reflect purely Etruscan subjects rather than derived Greek.

The material is exclusively dark red cornelian, so uniform as to suggest that the stones had been treated for this effect, where Greek cornelians are in various shades and many other stone types are used. The shape is invariably the scarab, with a late interest in flat ringstones also. The scarab backs are far more carefully worked than most Greek, a speciality being a patterned upright border or plinth to each stone; some have relief figures on their backs, like cameos. They are treated more as jewellery and often given elaborate gold settings; their use for sealing is not attested. Many are extremely small - little over 10mm long.

The styles to the end of the 5th century BC are close to the Greek but the Archaic tends to linger. At their best they are as good as any Greek, especially the anatomical studies of heroes. In the 4th century BC the a globolo style begins - rendering figures mainly with the drill, in assemblages of blobs. This style soon becomes dominant and even more simplified with animal studies. Finer engraving tends to be reserved for ringstones. There are no signatures but hands can be detected in the earlier scarabs by style, and names assigned [several have been distinguished by Ruth Glynn in an unpublished Oxford thesis (1981) and are used here, with her permission].

Two distinctive groups of metal finger rings (usually gold) are reserved for the end of this section. The first is mainly earlier than the stone scarabs, and is heavily Phoenicianizing, some are in relief; the second is Graecising classsical, all in relief.

Abbreviations used in this section:

AFRings - J. Boardman, Archaic Finger Rings, in Antike Kunst 10 (1967) 3-28.

AGGems - J. Boardman, Archaic Greek Gems (1968).

GGFR - J. Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings (1970, 2001) esp. pp. 152-3.

LHG - J.D. Beazley, The Lewes House Gems (1920, 2003).

Martini - W. Martini, Die etruskische Ringsteinglyptik (1971).

Zazoff - P. Zazoff, Etruskische Skarabäen (1968). see also - I. Krauskopf, Heroen, Götter und Dämonen auf etruskischen Skarabäen (1995).