Roman Gold Ring in the shape of a serpent
Culture: Roman, Ro-Imperial
Period: Roman (Egypt), 1st Century A.D.
Dimensions: Diameter: 2.2 cm
Ex Collection H., Zürich; collected in 1960’s.
This ring is intact, and all of the decoration is perfectly preserved; some marks on the body indicate that the jewel was actually worn in antiquity.
The body of the ring is twisted into a single spiral, and the design is open and modeled, so that one end representsa snake’s head and the other its tail. The body is tubular and, for the most part, smooth; scales appear near either end and are indicated by crosshatched, incised lines that seem to form a thin net. Just after these scaly areas are small geometric decorations consisting of chevrons and engraved points.
The snake’s head is diamond-shaped with a pointed muzzle. The cheeks and the bottom of the jaw display incised scales, while the top of the head is ornamented with many small plaques in relief, which are smooth and separated from one another by deep incisions. Two prominent, bulging globes represent the eyes; the mouth is marked by a deep groove that follows the contours of the diamond; and there is no sign of fangs. The naturalistic posture of the coiled serpent-a form that is particularly well suited to rings and bracelets-was a frequent subject for ancient jewelers. Pieces modeled in the shape of serpents, including earrings, rings, and bracelets, were already long known in Greek art by the eighth century B.C. But it was at the end of the fourth century B.C, especially during the Hellenistic period and the beginning of the Imperial period, that this motif became very popular. Open bracelets in one or more coils, and featuring the head and tail of a serpent, were known in all major centers of the ancient world, including Greece, southern Italy, Egypt, and Syria, and were represented in statues, paintings, terracottas, and other art objects
This ring is very similar to a well-known type of serpent bracelet, which it echoes in small details such as the geometric motifs; those bracelets are often attributed to Egyptian workshops from the beginning of the Roman period. In Egypt the serpent was often associated with the cult of Isis, but it is impossible to demonstrate the exact connection between Isis and these jewels. The similarities-in dimensions, proportions, the shape of the head and scales, undulations of the tail, subsidiary decorations, and so on-between these pieces from Roman Egypt are such that one can reasonably ask if these gems were not in fact from a single workshop.
For the Egyptian bracelets most similar to this one, see A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman (1994), pp. 327-28, no. 170 (also published in J. Ogden, Ancient Jewellery (1992), pp. 8-9, fig. 1; and H. Landenius, “Two Spiral Snake Armbands,” Medelhavsmuseet Bulletin 13 (1978), pp. 37-40.
For other Egyptian pieces, see O. W. Muscarella, ed., Ancient Art: The Norbert Schimmel Collection (1974), no. 71; and C. Ransom Williams, Gold and Silver Jewelry and Related Objects, New York Historical Society Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities 1-160 (1924), pp. 109-110, pl. XIV, nos. 40-41.
For pieces from Italy and the Greek world, see H. Hoffmann and P. Davidson, Greek Gold: Jewellery from the Age of Alexander (1966), p. 174, no. 65; and R. Siverio, Jewelry and Amber of Italy: A Collection in the National Museum of Naples (1959), nos. 154-70.