Enigmatic Magical Gem Inscribed with Ancient Magic Signs

Magic Gem, Cornelian, 3rd century
Place of storage: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California
Inventory number: 80.AN.132.2
Provenance: Unknown
Dimensions: The only information provided is 1.6 cm (5/8 in.). It remains uncertain if this refers to the hight or the width of the gem.

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 RS

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 RS

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 cast

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 cast

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 RS cast

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 RS cast

Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 RS Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 cast Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2 RS cast

The gem is inscribed on both sides as well as on its edge. The larger side depicts nine main lines with magic signs, with more signs scattered in between the lines.

The smaller side is inscribed with Greek characters in ten lines:

1. αρχ[…]οι   arch[…]oi
2. χουμε[…]χσου   xhoume[…]chsou
3. μαρταθραβωρθ   martathrabôrth
4. δαμενδρανομ   damendranom
5. ορφειμαλαμα   orpheimalama
6. ξαορυωνευαραχ   xaoruôneuarach
7. μαμθραιωιω   mamthraiôiô
8. ροχαμαραω   rochamaraô
9. θεουαηιω   theouaêiô
10. ωθωα   ôthôa

The first line could have read „archangeloi“ while lines 2 to 10 display unidentified voces magicae = magic words. The beginning of line 5 reads orphei, reminding of Orpheus, the founder and prophet of the Orphic mysteries. If the author of the inscription had intended to reference Orpheus cannot be said with certainty since the rest of the text does not provide any further information that could be related to an orphic context.

Inscription on the edge: ιιιοοουυυνιβο  iiiooouuunibo -> another unidentified vox magica (magic word).

This is one of the rare examples of a gem inscribed on the larger side with magic signs only.



When I posted this gem on twitter it received a lot of interest and comment. One question was if the gem is really ancient or if it could be a fake.

This question is actually at the core of research in ancient magic gems. The number of those gems known today is estimated between 3,200 and 5,000.[1] Many of them are compiled in the Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database (CBd), but: many, many of these gems are not ancient but post-antique. This does not necessarily imply that they are forgeries, since during the renaissance and later times the ancient art of gem engraving was highly appreciated and artists all over Europe tried to figure out and re-learn the techniques and tools. Some of the artists became extremly good at their job and their work was supported and purchased by the European Aristocracy. Others used their talent to produce forgeries.

When using the same tools and techniques as the ancient gem engravers did, and when using the same iconography (and gems), it is extremely difficult even for gem specialists to identify those forgeries.

Another problem is that we do not have clear criteria among ancient gems concerning their dating. If you take a look at the dated gems in publications and the CBd you can see that the majority of the dated gems is dated to the third century. That is not because we have clear indicators (like archaeological contexts, typical iconographical styles …) for that dating, but because of the third century being a century of war and unrest and fear. Therefor archaeologists, among others, concluded that in times like this many people would turn to magic. Erika Zwierlein-Diehl is a leading specialist in ancient gems and she published a comprehensive paper about dating criteria, but – as all too often – it’s not available for free. Basically it can be said: If you are familiar with ancient iconography, have some images of ancient magic artefacts at hand, and you are a good gem engraver, chances are good that nobody recognizes your gems as forgeries if you should intend to sell them as ancient.

What does this mean concerning the Getty gem introduced here?

Well, while the inscription on the backside does not provide clear evidence for or against an ancient production and while we don’t have a microscopic analysis of the engravings, which could tell us a little more about the tools that were used, the magic signs on the front side do provide some clues. Hundreds of magic signs have been preserved in the ancient Greek, Demotic, and Coptic ritual manuals – which actually are ancient and no forgeries. We also have many artefacts and some instruments with archaeological contexts depicting magic signs. The systematic study of these signs is at an early stege and we are dealing with hundreds of sources and thousand of sign types.

What I can say based on current research is that, while there are several „schools“ of ancient magic signs, the signs on the gem do display iconographical criteria different from the signs that were used later in alchemical and magical treatises, even though some of these later signs clearly have their origin in more ancient sources.

In forgeries and in the renaissance gems usually depict a mixture of sign iconographies: Some of the signs might look ancient, but others clearly don’t. And most of the times ancient magic signs were engraved together with an image and/or an inscription so that the iconography of the image provides additional hints. If the deities depicted on an „ancient“ gem wear post antique clothing, it is clear that, well, the forger should have done a better job in research.

The signs engraved in the gem here all display criteria of ancient iconography and lack criteria of post-antique iconography. Still, a potential forger could have been familiar with the ancient sources as long as these sources had been discovered at the time of the forgery. Another argument against a forgery is the sheer work to manufacture this gem. It is only 1,6 cm, and although the Getty Museum does not state if this concerns the length or the width, it is incredibly small making each sing less than two millimeters in hight. Cornelian is a hard stone with 6.5 -7 on the Mohs scale. It would have been a lot of effort to create a forgery, especially a forgery without any depiction of a higher power, like a deity or a deamon, which are usually depicted on forgeries.

I would not say for sure that this gem is ancient until I can see it under a microscope, but based on the iconography of the magic signs, their number and their size, on the material of the stone and on the usual iconography of forgeries, which is based on clients‘ interests, I would rather say its ancient then its modern. If this should be a modern forgery, than it is the best one I have seen. One way or the other, it’s an exceptional piece of handcraft and knowledge about ancient magic signs.

Here is the link to the original twitter post:

For those of you reading German: I recently showed in a scientific paper that two „ancient“ magical gems in the collection of a German museum were actually modern forgeries. You can download the paper here on the blog: https://charakteres.com/rekonstruktion-ursprung-neudatierung-magischer-gemmen/


Image source: Getty Museum 80.AN.132.2

[1] M. Smith, “Relations between Magical Papyri and Magical Gems,” in Actes du XVe congrés international de Papyrologie, troisième partie. Problèmes généraux – papyrologie littéraire, ed. J. Bingen, Papyrologica Bruxellensia 18 (Brussels, 1979), 129–136 (131).


Sotheby’s, London. Catalogue of Antiquities. July 11, 1977, p. 21, no. 107, pl. IV.

Michel, Simone. Die Magischen Gemmen. Zu Bildern und Zauberformeln auf geschnittenen Steinen der Antike und Neuzeit. (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2004), p. 295, 28.13.b, pl. 100, 3.

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