Ancient Treasures: Discovery of rare Roman Gold Ring
3rd October 2017
Ahead of the Tribal Art & Antiquities auction on 5th December, Specialist Alice King takes a closer look at a rare Roman Gold Ring (circa 2nd – 3rd century A.D.) offered in the sale. This openwork ring was found by chance by a metal detectorist in the village of Chalgrove, just south of Oxford, in 1995. The discovery proved to be a very rare example of gold work of this kind from Roman Britain in an exceptional state of preservation.
With a broad hoop, indicating that this was most probably a man’s ring, the gold openwork design depicts erotic scenes of bestiality. The central section shows an ithyphallic satyr gripping the hind quarters of a deer and a monkey is portrayed in the act of fornication with another deer. Two decoratively incised bands above and below form a border surrounding the scenes.
‘While there are other examples of Romano-British gold openwork rings from the period such as two famous rings found at Corbridge, Northumberland cited in Catherine Johns, The Jewellery of Roman Britain, it is the erotic scenes on this example that distinguish it as particularly unusual, if not unique.’ – Alice King
It is likely that this was owned by someone with significant wealth, such as a member of the provincial elite or a senior ranking military official.
‘Erotic iconography, particularly phallic images, were not necessarily overtly sexual in meaning in the ancient word and often functioned as good luck or apotropaic images. However, the transgressive nature of the depicted acts on this ring suggests they were intentionally explicit.’ – Alice King
This is reinforced by the presence of the satyr; satyrs were the companions of the god Dionysus, known as Bacchus or Liber in the Roman world, and are often depicted in erotic scenes such as these. Representations of satyrs date back to early 6th century B.C. Greece. Their iconography was almost always one of wild woodland frenzies, often involving erotic behaviour. A black-figure kylix in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, dated to 550 B.C., exemplifies just this kind of early representation of satyrs; several ithyphallic satyrs are shown dancing around Dionysus and Ariadne in procession.
‘The appeal of Dionysiac scenes permeated through antiquity, as is highlighted by the fact that this ring dates to 700 years after the production of the Greek pottery and yet still draws on the same imagery, and furthermore exemplifies the more playful and whimsical side of the ancients which is not often brought to the fore.’ – Alice King
Another 6th century black-figure vessel, a kyathos in the British Museum, provides an almost direct parallel in terms of the iconography for the scene on this ring; here too a satyr holds a deer in a near identical pose to the ring’s satyr.