This interesting item is a Roman Intaglio. An Intaglio is a gem or precious stone that has been engraved, usually the carving would be done on the flat back of the gem allowing the engraving to be viewed through the stone.
This Intaglio is a small amethyst jewel with a carving of a man on it. It is believed that this jewel would have been worn on a ring or necklace, however these items were not found with the gem during its discovery on Lingber Hill in Hellifield.
During the Roman period certain gem stones were believed to have magical properties. Amethysts were believed to prevent the owner from getting drunk. The name Amethyst comes from the Ancient Greek ‘amethystos’, which means ‘not intoxicated’. This theme is continued with the engraving on the gem. The carved figure can be seen holding a bowl and a spear, leading experts to suspect that the figure is Odysseus. One of Odysseus’s legendary adventures had him and his crew held captive by a Cyclops. One by one they were being eaten by the creature, until one night Odysseus gave the Cyclops strong wine to get it drunk. While the Cyclops slept Odysseus used a wooden stake to blind the giant, allowing him and his crew to escape.
Intaglios were made by using a combination of tiny drills and an abrasive paste, often made from emery. Roman craftsmen could produce stunning gems that only really declined in quality from the 2nd century AD onwards. This makes Roman gems difficult to date, but it is thought that this Intaglio is around two thousand years old. It is not known how this intaglio ended up in North Yorkshire, one possibility is it could have been acquired through trade with the Romans before the conquest.