Side by side images of two items from a 'Rediscovered Gems' exhibition, which showcases gemstones with carvings of figures from classical history

LMH Senior Research Fellow in Classical Archaeology Dr Claudia Wagner has curated a new exhibition, ‘Rediscovering Gems’, for the British Museum. Dr Wagner worked with her team in the museum’s Department of Greece and Rome, Keeper Dr Tom Harrison and Curator Aurelia Masson-Berghoff, to bring the exhibition to life.

Open daily until 15 June, ‘Rediscovering Gems’ provides an insight into the timeless allure of classical gems, exploring their significance and uses in the ancient Mediterranean world and charting their enduring popularity throughout history. 

The inspiration for this exhibition came in August 2023, when the British Museum made headlines with a startling revelation: over 2000 precious objects, including classical gems and gold jewellery, had gone missing from its collection or were damaged. This revelation not only sparked public concern but also reignited interest in these historical treasures, leading to the launch of Dr Wagner’s exhibition. 

The realisation of the missing objects prompted the launch of an urgent recovery programme. Following an extensive investigation involving the Metropolitan Police Service and the cooperation of dealers and members of the public, hundreds of stolen items have been recovered. Some of these recovered gems are now on display for the first time in ‘Rediscovering Gems’.  

The exhibition offers an unparalleled insight into one of the most ubiquitous features of the ancient Mediterranean world, where gems weren’t simply ornamental but used as seals, worn as jewellery, regarded as status symbols, and admired as objects of pure aesthetic beauty. 

At the heart of the exhibition is one of the British Museum’s most influential collectors: Charles Townley (1737 – 1805). A wealthy English country gentleman with a passion for the ancient world, Townley embarked on the famed 'Grand Tour' to Italy, where he amassed a remarkable collection of marble statues, ancient artifacts, and, notably, engraved gems. The exhibition pays homage to Townley's legacy, showcasing a selection of gems from his collection alongside other ancient treasures, collector's equipment such as magnifying glasses, cast impressions, and drawings.

Other highlights of the exhibition include one of the most memorable cameos from Antiquity, the Blacas Cameo, on display for the first time on a lightboard, allowing viewers to admire the beauty of the sardonyx, a semi-precious quartz, and the mastery of the engraver in using the layers to portray Augustus. Also on display is a sketch in red chalk by Michelangelo Buonarotti, one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. 

"Rediscovering Gems" is on display for free until 15 June in Room 3 of the British Museum.


Image: the image above shows two of the gems featured in the exhibition - on the left is an ancient glass intaglio with profile bust of helmeted Minerva and on the right is an ancient glass intaglio with Bacchus leaning on Silenus.