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Gemstones dating to the 13th–17th centuries in archaeological research data from the residence of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes in the Vilnius Lower Castle

Gemstones include precious stones and organic materials (amber, coral, pearls, jet, etc.)1 used in jewellery. Ever since the Middle Ages in Europe, the most popular gemstones were diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, amethyst, quartz and turquoise.
During the course of archaeological research in Vilnius, 25 artefacts were discovered, decorated with 27 gemstones, along with 2 artefacts with stone insets, all dating to the 13th–17th centuries. These were 2 garnets, 8 pearls, 2 chalcedony, 4 turquoise, 2 carnelian and 2 coral pieces, and one each of jasper, quartz, emerald, jet, ruby, diamond, agate, serpentinite and stannite.
The mass of these gemstones is 0.09–13.34 ct, most are of a cabochon (oval) shape, but some are in a rectangular baguette or pyramid shape. The gemstones were used to decorate rings, a pendant and a decorative detail, and some were used as beads or were inset to embellish other works. 
Archaeologists uncovered 18 artefacts decorated with 20 gemstones and 2 artefacts with stone embellishment at the residence of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes in the Vilnius Lower Castle: there were 3 inset stones, 10 beads, 1 decorative detail and 6 rings. The inset stones were carnelian and quartz, the beads were made of carnelian, jet, coral, jasper and pearl, the rings featured a garnet, diamond, ruby, pearl, chalcedony and turquoise, the decorative detail had a garnet and pearl, and polished chalcedony, the ring was decorated using serpentinite, while the pendant – stannite.
The oldest artefacts to have been embellished with gemstones are dated from the end of the 13th to the first quarter of the 14th centuries. A cultural layer containing chess pieces, glass bracelets and beads, painted glass goblets, jewellery and other artefacts also revealed two inset gemstone pieces (from quartz and carnelian) as well as two artefacts with stone embellishment: a copper alloy ring with serpentinite and a copper alloy pendant with stannite, which was more characteristic of the earlier period. 
Jewellery items with garnet (the golden ring and the decorative detail), pearl (the decorative detail), chalcedony (a ring) and carnelian (a bead) date to the 14th and 14th–15th centuries. The freshwater river pearl – which can be traced back to the times of Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas (1392/1401–1430) – was used in combination with the garnet to adorn the decorative gilded silver detail. The 14th-century carnelian bead was found inside a leather belt bag along with some nails, a buckle, a mount, a whetstone and other artefacts. The belt bag is likely to have belonged to a craftsperson.
The pearls, coral and jet beads, golden rings with a ruby and with a diamond and turquoise date to the 16th–17th centuries. The pearls are also freshwater river pearls, and one has a golden wire going through it. In the 16th century, pearls were especially admired, being used to decorate clothing, accessories, jewellery and other artefacts.
The golden rings with ruby and diamond are particularly exceptional. The ruby set in one ring is of a rectangular baguette shape – this was a very popular cut among gemstones in the 16th century. The other ring features a square pyramid-shaped diamond, with additional angles cut in along the sides of the pyramid. Rings with such a pointy or so-called sharp diamond were known of in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Such a ring with a diamond was known to have been worn by the queen consort of Hungary, Isabella Jagiellon (1519–1559), who was the sister of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Sigismund Augustus (1544/1548–1572). Her ring has survived and is part of a private collection in England.
According to the papal nuncio Bernardino Bongiovanni, who visisted the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius in 1560, and witnessed the treasury of the ruler of Lithuania and Poland Sigismund Augustus, we learn that it contained numerous rubies, emeralds, diamonds and other treasures. An exchange of gifts – rings with rubies and a diamond – is mentioned in 1561 during the meeting of Sigismund Augustus and the Duke of Finland John III Vasa in Kaunas, when the marriage of Sigismund Augustus’ sister Catherine was being discussed. Even more treasures were mentioned in the 1562 inventory of her dowry.
Rings with gemstones were also discovered at the burial sites of Sigismund Augustus’ wives in the Vilnius Cathedral in 1931, albeit without insignia. The Grand Duchess of Lithuania and Queen of Poland Elisabeth of Austria (1526–1545) was buried with a golden ring decorated with five diamonds and a medallion. The ruler of Lithuania and Poland Barbara Radziwiłł (1520/1523–1551) was buried with a golden neck chain and rings: two were on her right hand – one had a plaited design, the other had two diamonds, while on her left hand there was a golden ring with gemstones – a diamond, emerald and ruby. It is believed that Sigismund Augustus gave this ring to her as a gift.
Gemstones have always been expensive and rare, so ever since the oldest times, goldsmiths would sometimes replace them with imitations – less expensive minerals of similar colours, or glass, or they would use several stones stuck together (doublets, triplets) instead of one gemstone for a piece of jewellery. This was a way of falsifying the weight of the stone and its dimensions, also, this kind of stuck-together gemstone would be of a lesser quality and would cost less than a pure gemstone. A doublet, or a matrix-rock gemstone, was identified in the golden ring with turquoise found in the territory of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes’ residence. Another ring with a doublet was found in the churchyard of the 15th-century Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Trakai, in the grave of a wealthy woman. The eye of this ring consisted of a doublet of citrine, combined together with probably the same kind of mineral.
The gemstones found in the territory of the residence of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes in the Vilnius Lower Castle are exhibited as part of the treasury of the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.
Research of the gemstones and stannite was carried out at the Gemstone Research Laboratory of the Lithuanian Assay Office according to the gemstone classification confirmed by the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) (researchers: Violeta Kisielienė, Mindaugas Čebatariūnas, Olga Demina, Gintarė Martinkutė, Aistė Daukšytė, Reda Matulienė).
Research of the serpentinite was conducted at the State Scientific Institute’s Nature Research Centre, at the Laboratory of Bedrock Geology (researcher Dr Gražina Skridlaitė).
X-ray examinations of the pearls were performed at the Lithuanian National Museum of Art Pranas Gudynas Conservation Centre (researcher Jurgis Pilipavičius).
Author: Rasa Gliebutė

Photographers: Vytautas Abramauskas and Rasa Gliebutė

   1            Amber artefacts are not presented in this virtual exhibition. 


Published:: 2024-03-25 16:26 Modified: 2024-03-25 16:43
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