PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sometimes it is the tiny things that take your breath away. This is one such object. This gem represents one of the most exquisite examples of high-quality gem carving that survives today. Lean in closely and admire the details. Although the carving of gemstones was known in the Bronze Age, the rediscovery of the process of gem carving began in Greece in the 7th century BCE, possibly as the result of influence from Egypt. It reached its highpoint in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the period to which this example is dated. Artists became famous for their virtuoso carving.
Engraving was accomplished using a drill and a wheel. A slurry of powdered emery was used to assist in the cutting. The stones that were most favoured for engraving owing to their durability, moderate hardness and absence of grain were quartzes, of which chalcedony is an example.
The scene depicts Nike erecting a standard battlefield victory marker called a tropaion. It is from this word that the modern term ‘trophy’ is ultimately derived. These markers were dedications to the gods in thanks for victory and traditionally took the form of a tree-like structure on which the armour of the defeated foe was hung. They were set up on the battlefield usually at the site of the turning point, at which the routed enemy’s phalanx broke, turned, and ran. In this example, in addition to the armour, we can see swords, shields and banners forming part of the victory marker.
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Date published: 17 December 2021