Margaret Sax



+44 (0)20 7323 8268

Margaret’s research into the characteristics of tool marks preserved on hard stone artefacts allowed her to develop a methodology, based on optical and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), for the identification of ancient carving methods. Her specialization arose from a project to identify the materials of more than two thousand near Eastern cylinder seals (about 3500-400 BC), which led to an investigation of the tools and techniques used to engrave the hardest, quartz seals.

The study resulted in a radical reassessment of the date for the introduction of the jeweller’s wheel in Mesopotamia. The methodology has since been applied to the carving of nephrite jade in China, a tradition spanning seven millennia.

In 2006, Margaret was invited by Peking University, Beijing to study a selection of the jades excavated at the Jin Marquis cemetery, Shanxi province, China. She now also works with Professor Dame Jessica Rawson, Oxford University to study the technology of carnelian beads found at this first millennium BC cemetery.

In 2015, Margaret was invited by Tongji University, Shanghai to visit the studio workshops of eight Master jade carvers in South East China and assess the innovations in technique which have occurred since the turmoil of the mid twentieth century. The Museum has since acquired several contemporary jades for display.

Current projects

Investigation of the methods used to carve jades in the British Museum collection and jades and carnelian beads excavated at the Jin Marquis cemetery, Shanxi province, China

Previous projects

Identification of carving techniques on Chinese jade

Identification of carving techniques on Islamic jade AD 14th-16th century

In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, investigation of the methods used to carve jade and other hard stones in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Identification of engraving techniques on quartz cylinder seals from Mesopotamia, about 3000-400 BC

Identification of the materials of cylinder seals from Mesopotamia, about 3500-400 BC

Recent publications

M. Sax, W. K. Wannaporn, J. M. Kenoyer, ‘Stone beads from the relic deposits: a preliminary morphological and technological analysis’, in E. Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1832-1835, Research Publication 215, (London, The Trustees of the British Museum, 2017) pp. 52-57

C. Michaelson, M. Sax, H. Wu, ‘The renaissance of jade carving in China today’, Arts of Asia, May-June (2016), pp. 61-71

M. Sax, ‘The materials of cylinder seals of the second millennium BC’, in E. Porada & D. Colon, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum, Cylinder seals IV, The Second Millennium BC Beyond Babylon, (London, The British Museum Press, 2016), pp. 161-170, 220-223

M. Sax, P. Hommel, S. Priewe, ‘A fresh assessment of a small stone plaque from China’, British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 9, (2015), pp. 107-110

P. Hommel, M. Sax, ‘Shifting materials: variability, homogeneity and change in the beaded ornaments of the Western Zhou’, Antiquity 88, (2014), pp. 1213-28

M. Sax, K. Ji, ‘The technology of jades excavated at the Western Zhou, Jin Marquis cemetery, Tianma-Qucun, Beizhao, Shanxi province: recognition of tools and techniques’, Journal of Archaeological Science 40, (2013), pp. 1067–79

M. Sax, J.M. Walsh, I.C. Freestone, A.H. Rankin, N.D. Meeks, 'The origins of two large purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls', Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(10), (2008), pp. 2751-2760

M. Sax, N.D, Meeks, J. Ambers, C. Michaelson, ‘The introduction of rotary incising wheels for working jade in China’, in J.G. Douglas, P. Jett & J. Winter (eds.), Scientific Research on the Sculptural Arts of Asia, Proceedings of the third Forbes Symposium at the Freer Gallery of Art, (London, Archetype, 2007), pp. 20-25

M. Sax, J. Ambers, N.D. Meeks, S. Canby, 'The emperor's terrapin', British Museum Technical Research Bulletin. 1, (2007), pp. 35-41

M. Sax, N. D. Meeks, C. Michaelson, A. P. Middleton, ‘The identification of carving techniques on Chinese jade’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 31 (2004), pp. 1413-1428

M. Sax, N. D. Meeks, D. Collon, ‘The introduction of the lapidary engraving wheel in Mesopotamia’, Antiquity, 74(284), (2000), pp. 380-387

M. Sax, J. McNabb, N. D. Meeks, ‘Methods of engraving Mesopotamian cylinder seals: experimental confirmation’, Archaeometry, 40 (1998), pp. 1-21

Sax, M., ‘Recognition and nomenclature of quartz materials with specific reference to engraved gemstones’, Jewellery Studies 7, (1996), pp. 63–72

M. Sax, ‘The composition of the materials of first millennium BC cylinder seals from western Asia’, in P. Budd, B. Chapman, C. Jackson, R. Janaway & B. Ottaway (eds.), Archaeological sciences 1989, Oxbow Monograph 9, (Oxford, 1991), pp. 104-114