Vol. 58 (2022)

The Gems in the Ustinow Collection, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

Published September 1, 2022
Tamás Gesztelyi
University of Debrecen


Gesztelyi, T. (2022). The Gems in the Ustinow Collection, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 58, 101–141. https://doi.org/10.22315/ACD/2022/6

Scientifically, the collection’s primary importance is its Middle-Eastern origin; collections of gemstones from the Middle East have rarely been published unlike those from European archaeological sites. Thus the possibility opens up to compare finds from the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire with a focus on similarities and differences. While in the western provinces the gemstones typically spread during the era of the Roman Empire, in the eastern provinces the use of seals and gemstones goes back several thousand years. It follows that in the western regions, representations of the official themes of the age of the emperors, including the characteristic figures of gods of the state religion (Jupiter, Minerva, Mars, Venus Victrix), are the most common. In contrast, the eastern provinces saw the spread of representations of local gods (Zeus Ammon, Zeus Heliopolitanos, Sarapis) or the Hellenistic types of the Greek gods (Apollo Musagetes, Aphrodite Anadyomene, Hermes Psychopompos). However, there were figures of gods that were equally popular in both regions, such as Tyche–Fortuna, Nike–Victoria, Eros–Amor, Dionysos–Bacchus, Heracles–Hercules. Each of these became rather popular in the Hellenistic World, spreading basically spontaneously throughout the entire Roman Empire. There was a similar unity in the popularity of represenations of animals, too.
The eastern region was, however, characterised by the relatively large number of magic gemstones. There is a piece among these which has no exact analogy (Cat. 69) and its analysis sheds new light on the previous interpretation of similar pieces. The popularity of magic gemstones is highlighted by the fact that some of their motifs became distorted beyond recognition in the popularisation process. Understandably, Sasanian gemstones and seals, which revived the Romans’ dying custom of sealing for some time, were also typical of the eastern regions. What is conspicuous is that the stone cameos (agate, sardonyx) so common in the western regions are completely missing from the collection, while there is a fair number of glass cameo pendants made in the eastern regions.
From an educational and community cultural aspect, the significance of the Ustinow collection lies in the fact that it represents several historical and cultural eras between the fourth century B.C. and the fifth century A.D. for the benefit of the interested public, private collectors, and students of archaeology and the antiquities. The gemstones may be small, but the representations on them can be extraordinarily rich in meaning. With adequate enlargement and due professional expertise, which this catalogue aims to promote, all this information can come to life in front of us, allowing us a glimpse into the lives and thoughts of the citizens of a Mediterranean world two thousand years back.