Magical signs: An extraordinary phenomenon or just business as usual? Analysing decoration patterns of magical gems


Magical signs: An extraordinary phenomenon or just business as usual? Analysing decoration patterns of magical gems (1)

International Conference: Magical Gems in Contexts. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts, 16-18 February 2012.

The presented results are based on a statistical analysis of 1075 magical gems being dated between the 1st century BCE and the 6th century CE, deriving from various collections world wide (2). The estimated overall number of magical gems preserved today is between 3200 and 5000 (3). Magical sings – or „Charakteres“, as they were called in antiquity – appear on 22% of the analysed gems, a ratio that can also be observed in the instructions collections (4) as well as in the papyrus amulets and which is slightly below the ratio among the gold and silver lamellae (27%) (5).

The paper consists of three parts: part one outlines the basic decoration patterns of the magic gems not including magic signs (in terms of a more convenient reading in the following referred to as ø-gems or ø-group for “zero” in terms of “no magic signs”), the second part focuses on the decoration patterns including magic signs (referred to as z-gems or z-group). In part three the results of the previous parts are juxtaposed and the central question of this paper will be discussed: Were magic signs in antiquity regarded as extraordinary phenomen, or did they represent just one out of numerous graphical instruments in the apparatus of a practitioner?

The presented study cannot – and does not intent to – be regarded as a representational analysis for neither the preserved amount of magical gemstones nor a reflection of ancient realities. Instead I would like it to be regarded as an open door, demonstrating how much more information statistical methods applied to an in depths analysis – which has not been undertaken so far within the research of magical gems – can bring to light. In addition the report intends to provide a structured overview concerning the occurrence and distribution of the fundamental criteria of the applied decoration patterns.

The paper was held at the International Conference „Magical Gems in Context“, Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts, 16-18 February 2012. It will be published in the conference proceedings in 2014.

(1) This study was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre 933 “Material Text Cultures. Materiality and Presence of Writing in Non-Typographic Societies” at the University of Heidelberg, project A03, „Materiality and presence of magical signs between antiquity and the middle ages“.

(2) Austria: Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum (94); Germany: Berlin, Neues Museum (166), Kassel (84), Sammlung Skoluda (66), Köln,Institut für Altertumskunde (31), Hannover (28), Göttingen (16), Braunschweig (11), Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (9), Köln,Römisch-Germanisches Museum (8); Great Britain: London, British Museum (522), Oxford (30); United States of America: Princeton, ArtMuseum Princeton University, Ann Arbor (10). These collections were chosen because each gem is published accompanied by a very good photography. The gems in Berlin I was able to examine myself during a two days stay. My warmest thanks go to Dr. Olivia Zorn for thepermission and great support.

(3) Morton Smith, Relations between Magical Papyri and Magical Gems, Papyrologica Bruxellensia 18 (1979), 131.

(4) The focus of my PhD thesis was the analysis of inscribed artefacts described in the Greek, Demotic and Coptic spell collections. See

(5) A checklist of the silver, gold and copper lamellae including 169 objects is in preparation for publication by the author. The analysis of thedefixiones is in progress.

Juni 7, 2013 @ 2:25