A Roman Signet Ring

Bradford on Avon Museum, Wiltshire


Roman signet ring


A piece of Roman bling – a chunky solid silver finger ring with its ‘jewel’ still in place, that was found in Broughton Gifford parish, to the east of Bradford on Avon.

It is fairly large and heavy (weighing 18 g) and cast in silver. The central part, or bezel, has a raised hexagonal collet that holds an oval piece of blue glass,  into which there is a figure of a genius holding a cornucopia in one hand and a patera (a dish for offerings) in the other. In rings with natural stones, the figure would have been engraved into the glass in the technique called by the Italian word intaglio, so is negative and would produce a positive if pressed into a seal. However, as this is glass, the figure was probably cast. Like our other, but lighter, Roman ring it has shoulders each side of the bezel, but decorated with a chevron ornament. It has, of course, been tarnished and built up a patina during its 1,800 years in the soil.

Judging by its size, it was probably worn by a man, or perhaps by a woman over a gloved finger. We have no idea of how it was lost, or by whom, or where the owner lived or was travelling to, or the distress caused by its loss. You are free to make up your own story! We also have no idea of where it was made, but silversmiths in this country (Britannia) probably had the necessary skills. The origin of the silver is also not known, although silver was extracted not far away, in the lead mines of the Mendip Hills in Somerset.

Intaglio rings, of which the jewel is an engraved precious or semi-precious stone in the most expensive examples, grew in popularity in the third century. An intaglio cornelian gemstone engraved with a figure holding a helmet, shield and spear was found in the excavation of the Atworth Roman villa in 1937-8, but was subsequently lost.

The ring was found by a metal detectorist, who properly declared it to the Wiltshire Finds Liaison Officer at Salisbury Museum, in the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Being made of silver and over 300 years old, it qualified as treasure under the Treasure Act of 1996 and was offered to Bradford on Avon Museum to purchase and pay the reward, as we had expressed an interest. Broughton Gifford is in the Museum’s official collecting area, as part of the former Bradford Hundred. The value of treasure objects is decided by experts at the British Museum, including commercial dealers and any of the parties can challenge the valuation. The Museum is very grateful to the owner of the land on which it was found, who decided to waive his share of the reward, so that we only had to pay the half-share to the finder. This is the first time a metal detectorist’s find has come to the Museum -there must be much more out there.