Most of the locks, keys and other security hardware that are discovered, offered for sale and collected at this time are for chests, boxes, caskets and cupboards. This includes keys, lock plates, bolts, hasps, handles, hinges, fastenings, legs and decorations. Judging from the vast numbers of ring keys and lock bolts that have been found, the use of chest locks was wide spread, perhaps even universal among those prosperous enough to have something to protect.
It is not always clear which piece of hardware was used for which purpose. There are several types of containers that would have been locked. First and most important would be the arca or household safe, kept by the master of the house in the tablinium. This would be a heavy chest, sometimes chained to the floor, which would contain money and other valuables such as glassware, jewelry and expensive oils.
A capsa was a cylindrical wooden container for books: that is, numbers of scrolls stacked upright. It might also contain clothing or other items, but was mostly used for storing and transporting books for school boys. When the capsa contained books of importance, it was sealed or kept under lock and key. If used exclusively for books, letters and writing, it would be called a scrinium.
The illustration at left is a detail from a Roman fresco, showing a bird stealing a ribbon from a pyxis, or jewelry casket (Smith's Dictionary). Such a casket might contain jewelry, toilet articles, keys, coins, anything small and valuable.
The following quote was taken from classicsunveiled as a simple but useful commentary on chests: "Chests were found in every house. They were usually made of wood and often bound with iron. Small chests, used as jewel cases, were sometimes made of silver or gold. Cabinets were made of the same materials as chests and were often beautifully decorated. They were frequently divided into compartments, but they had no sliding drawers and their wooden doors were without hinges or locks. The cabinets in the library held books, while those in the alae (side room) held wax masks of ancestors."
However, Johnston (Private Life of the Romans) tells us that "The cabinets, armaria, were designed for similar purposes (to the arca) and were always supplied with hinges and locks".
The image at right is from Jacobi, showing a small chest which appears to have a pin tumbler lock. However, I it doesn't seem to be complete, since I see no evidence of hasps, hinges or handles.
Surviving chests or remnants are extremely rare. A bronze offering arca with key from Gaul, dating to about A.D. 130-180, is in the Getty Museum, and can be seen online (see ref).
There are a very few surviving Roman and Byzantine caskets of silver or ivory, but they are not very helpful since they are mostly lacking locks. There is the Pola reliquary of 400 C.E., without a lock, and a little silver box from Syria, circa 300s C.E. (Metmuseum) also without a lock. There is the famous Projecta's silver wedding casket (Beckwith), Roman, 380 C.E., also of silver and also without a lock.
There is an early Greco-Roman bronze strong box at Tarentum (Guide to the Exhibition) which does not have a key lock, but a complex set of bolts and catches.
The most interesting is perhaps a Roman ivory box (wikipedia) which does still retain a hasp and lock. The image of the lock is not well resolved, but appears to be a mechanism for a rotary key.
Augusta Raurica. For any collector, or for that matter any archaeologist who is interested in Roman chest hardware, the monograph by Riha on the discoveries at Augusta Raurica is a must-have. A large number of fittings, including locks, from chests and boxes were found at this site. In addition, there are many references to previous finds, and I know of no better source of reconstructions of Roman chests and boxes. This work is currently still in print.
However, reconstructions of chest lock mechanisms are unsatisfying. They invariably show bolts fastened by metal brackets. See Bruner, for example, or Conolly. To the best of my knowledge, only a single lock with such brackets has been recovered, which is in the British Museum (guide to exhibition). This lock and a reconstruction are shown here. It's a most valuable illustration,
showing the bolt acting to secure a chain, although a keeper is not shown. Metallic keepers seem never to have been found intact, although I have seen telltale remnants of iron fittings on the tips of some bolts in this collection. Some of the bolts found at Pompeii have the remnants of iron fittings stuck to the latching ends. I believe that the heads of bolts were sometimes seated in wood when locked. Evidently the lock shown above would be for a cupboard with front opening doors rather than a casket with a top opening lid which would require a hasp.
Roman keys & caskets in Poland. Roman customs and artifacts spread far beyond the empire proper. It's worth mentioning the finds made in graves in Kowalenko in Poland, as part of a salvage archaeology project. The reference (muzarp) shows sets of casket fittings from the mid-1st century to the beginning of the 3rd.
Chest Lock Plates and Groups
A Roman lock plates is the equivalent of the modern escutcheon, a cover for the lock mechanism. Most lock plates were rectangular and made from bronze sheet. They were often decorated with a favorite design: concentric circles with a dot in the center. They were fastened to the chest with either iron or bronze nails or pins and often the head was a large knob, sometimes figural.
Some are known with areas of gilding or silver plating. Thin washes of silver were probably applied from a silver amalgam. Plates could be perfectly flat, but often were folded over at the sides and must therefore have been inset slightly into the wood chest front, or more likely, protruding from it. Alternatively, such a plate might cover the entire side of a container, although in many cases this would require a very tiny box. The backs of plates were in contact with wood and a few still retain traces and impressions of the wood. The support frames must have been iron or wood, since none have survived. All bronze components except for plates and some decorations were lost wax castings. At this point, I don't know exactly how thin sheet bronze was fabricated. I have seen sheet as thin as 0.010", but can only suppose that it was made by heating and beating thicker cast sheet.
Plate group 4799 a-i This is an extraordinary set of chest lock hardware, alleged to be late Roman or early Byzantine, from the Holy Land, circa 4th-6th century CE. It's a nice example of a double hasp chest lock, consisting of a lock plate, two original hasps and the original bolt. Enough remains to attempt a reconstruction on paper although there were some problems. Parts of the lock plate are missing. The support for the bolt and pin assembly is missing, although there are iron stains and a missing area from the top of the bolt to show where it was. Some decorations are gone, and others are very faint. Everything is blurred by corrosion. 4799j is a back view of the group, showing the double bolt and the hasps in the assembled position, Tilted to show the bolt-hasp engagement more clearly.
Plate 4799. The lock plate is a mess. It was made from thin bronze sheet, and was fastened to the chest by eight bronze nails . Each nail passed through a bronze roundel (an elegant washer), now missing. Their presence is shown by a slight darkening of the plate around the nail holes. Their diameter was about 25 mm or close to 1 inch . This is the same as the markings on the hasps, and it's fair to assume that they had the same bulls eye or target markings . This was a favorite Roman decoration for lock and key hardware. In fact, there are also large diameter circles scribed into the plate, which are now very faint. They consist of three concentric bands, and there may have been more, but the center is lost.
Bolt 4799 The bolt is double, extended and recurved to lock both hasps. Dimensions of all the pieces show that the top surface of the bolt must be as shown. It would slide to the left to lock. There is considerable rust left in the top halves of the circular pattern of four holes at left. This must be from iron lock pins, since the residue does not go all the way down through the bolt. The two rectangular holes have no rust, probably indicating that these pins were never installed or had been removed for an easier fit. Similar double bolts will be encountered later.
Hasps 4799 The hasps are sophisticated castings, much more elaborate than necessary. There was an iron pin at the top of each hasp, and the holes are still filled with rust. However, the rest of the connections are missing.
Plate group 4799 reconstruction. Presented here is a reconstructed front view of the lock, plus the bolt. Dotted lines are uncertain edges. The key is not available, although it would probably be a fairly ordinary ring key. Altogether, this must have been a most impressive lock when new. Double-hasp locks are less common than single-hasp and as we will see, have some interesting varieties. Shown here is a double hasp lock from Biasiotti,
a04w "Keys, Locks, and Padlocks from Pompeii" shows some of the same features: the slots for double hasps, roundels for the nails and the large diameter scribed circles.
Plate group 4849 a,b The fastenings were four iron pins, with iron caps. The off-center knob was movable and certainly part of the mechanism, but it's not clear to me how it worked. The reverse side shows what is obviously an iron bolt between bronze guides, and some means for moving it by the key. There is not enough remaining to be sure how it worked. The back side also shows many fragments of the wood in which the plate was mounted.
Plate group 4939. Unique lock plate, with ornate hasp and key found together. Decorated with silver plated concentric bands. Iron corner pins with figural lion bronze knobs and four holes for additional pins. Unusual bitted key with traces of original gilding. The hasp has a fragment of the original bronze box fitting stuck to it. It has a wide bronze pin at the top, retaining the remains of an iron connector in its center.
Plate group 4940 This is a group featuring a large number of decorative rings, most without connectors, and and some with both single and double iron connectors. The hasp is nice. and the leaf is much like one we'll see later, attached to a key. The roundel is a thick, sturdy cup shaped piece, function unknown. Also, there's a curious hook shaped object whose use is also not obvious.
Plate group 4960. Hinges, hasps, pinning nails and caps, several of the decorative rings and even some of the bronze chest reinforcing strips have survived. The case itself is of folded sheet bronze, about 0.037" thick. I believe that the larger off-center knob did the actual work of moving the bolt, probably by rotation, and that the key only released it to move. We can see the scribed rings on the front continuing on the sides, showing that the scribing was done before the bronze sheet was folded. The plate was not nailed, but pinned through the wood block. The flat pins have little holes near the end, presumably for their own pins. They only extend about 0.25" beyond the base of the lock plate, (4960R2), but there is evidence from interior and exterior markings and from the offset in the hasps that the plate was actually inset about 0.3" into the chest panel.
On the inside, (4960R), we can see the outline of an iron fitting around the keyhole, now mostly gone. The bit of it that remains as rust (4960R3) is partly blocking the keyhole. A considerable amount of wood remains, although not enough to tell us anything about the mechanism. The size of the hasp loops and the amount of wood remaining show that the remaining bolt material must still be present under the wood, but it is not visible.
Plate 4969 This unusual plate has 4 corner nail holes and 5 knobs, but no keyhole. The reverse side (4969R) indicates that one of the 4 edge knobs was rotatable and its bronze shaft once connected to a latching mechanism, now missing. Decorated with scribed patterns of concentric circles and straight border lines.
Plate 4983 Single hasp plate with the usual concentric ring decoration. 0.025" bronze sheet, folded over 0.17". Keyhole originally L-shape, partial loss.
Plate 4987 In addition to double bolt hasps and double hasp bolts, there is this unusual plate, which I assume is for a double bolt hasp. Could even be for 2 different keys, but there's no way to tell. It's worth noting that the slots align perfectly with hasp 4977.
Plate 5008 Chest lock plates are usually rectangular, but not quite always, as this example shows. The fastener holes were punched through from the back side, which is somewhat unusual. The plate was not cast but cut and folded from sheet bronze. The wide concentric bands are in relief, but there is no sign of them on the back, indicating that they were cut.
Plate group 5016. I can't be positive that all the pieces of this group were found together, but I'll present them that way anyway. The parts are interesting enough. The round fixture was alleged to be a handle but is probably a decoration, a large ring fastened to the thin chest plate with a typical cotter pin. The handle is in good shape, and attached similarly. This is a typical handle, if there is such a thing, ornamented at the recurved ends. The section of bronze that it is attached to is so thin (0.020" at this time) that there must have been a wood lining to back it up and the box itself must have been small and light. The bolt is both complex and unusual, and will be discussed in the section on bolts.
Plate 5030A This double hasp plate is a fairly typical example, with the usual concentric ring decoration, accented by silver plating. Itís notable mostly for its shutter treeatment. The heavy bronze lever at lower right operated a keyhole cover. Figure 5030B shows the remaining parts on the back side. The shutter itself was of iron and has been broken off. However, the position of the bronze pivot and the width of the part that was pivoted leave no doubt that it was used to cover the keyhole.
Plate Group 5043 There several features here for which I don't have other examples:
1. The decorative pins with rectangular shafts and pin holes, showing the depth of the wood container. Which is pretty thick, by the way, indicating that it was a sturdy chest rather than a small box.
2. The arrangement with two decorative dummy fastening knobs on the plate, peened over at the back, but with one of the actual mounting pins intact.
3. The 2" nail with the big cap
4. The heavy bolt with clear evidence that it was seated in an iron fitting.
Plate 5071 This one is thin enough (0.010") that the decoration is repousse. There are seemingly random strings of punched lines.
The following group of small escutcheons was kept together and inserted out of numerical order
Plate 5080 In addition to their function as mountings for mechanisms, lock plates are covers to conceal and protect them. Not all of them are large and elaborate. This is an example of an escutcheon for a rotary key, similar enough to its modern counterparts to be instantly recognizable. The dot-circle decoration is traditional, but I don't see how the plate was fastened to the wood surface.
Plate Curle78-14 For comparison I've included this image of an iron escutcheon from Curle, plate 78, figure 14, found at the fort of Newstead. Some keys and lock parts are also illustrated in this reference.
Plate smf 1 "Roman to early Byzantine lock plate with bird on top". From Archaeology.org. The position of the bird shows that the key post was on the bottom, inverted from our usage.
Plate 5261 Fastening offset from the entry slot. I suspect that this, and some other small plates with vertical slots, were actually strike plates. This example would make more sense if the locksmith were moving the fasteners over a little into the middle of a door, where the wood is stronger.
Plates 5329-5332 This was a set, obtained from Cyprus, and may have been found there. They were proably inserted directly into a wood chest. They have no mounting holes and I don't know how they were secured.
Plate 5114 Top-of-the-line, I suppose, with double hasp and elaborate geometric and floral designs repousse. The back view 5114b shows (faint outline) a shutter, pivoting on an iron shaft and operated from a front knob. The purpose of the shutter must simply have been to act as a dust cover and status symbol, no security added.
Plate 5143 This is the only example I've found so far with serrated edge decoration. It's odd that the maker punched his mounting pin holes in such non-symmetric positions.
Plate 5163 Bronze sheet, thickness 0.030", folded to a height of 0.33". The one remaining pin looks exactly like rusty iron, but is non-magnetic!
Plate 5184 Small plate with unusual double keyhole. Three of the four rivets are still in place. As shown also in 5184B the rivet heads and washers are hexagonal, an unnecessary but decorative touch.
Plate CG47 Find from a Gallo-Roman Villa: a circular lock plate with an alternative method of fastening. Brackets are attached to the plate and extend through the wood, with holes in the ends for pins. May be soldered, I see no evidence of fastenings on the plate itself.
Plate 5216 This small square plate is similar to Plate 5008, but made for a different mechanism. The sides are bent to fit over a wooden core.
Stender Rotary. Casket locks with rotary mechanisms are not as common as pin tumbler, but they do exist. This is a nice example from Krefeld. (archeologie-krefeld). The translated caption for this figure reads "Figure 3. Roman trick key-lock from the grave field in Krefeld-Gellep. Museum Burg Linn".
Plate 5220 This is the smallest plate I've encountered so far, just 1 inch square. The four tiny nails are bronze, and have survived. The reddish coloring is a thin layer of concretion, most of which is too adherent to remove.
Plate 5225 Another tiny plate that would have been suitable for a casket.
Plate 5249 Another tiny plate, this time of iron, This is close to being a universal plate; looks like it could be used for any type of key and mechanism. Certainly I know of no cross-shape keys. Refer to the discussion in the section on warded long keys.
Plate 5260 Simple and functional, a lock cover of iron for a rotary key and lock.
Plate 5263 Escutcheon for a rotary lock. Can't be a barrel lock lid, since there is no lip. It's quite flat.
Plate 5275 Thin iron, decorated repousse with rows of dimples.
Plate 5280 Thin bronze with nice green patina. Decorated with repousse beaded border. Mounting holes punches, not drilled.
Plate 5284 Much like 5275, but with two holes for hasps. Remarkable, in that there is not very much space for a mechanism.
Plate 5313 Similar to other plates in having cut-out corners and a warded keyhole, but shows thin traces and pieces of the wood chest to which it was fastened. One iron nail survives, although broken off. I am puzzled by traces of an inner bronze foil liner, less than 0.5 mm thick.
Plate 5334 Quite ornate, and not repousse as I expected. This is a casting, and the reverse is flat. That made the center area so thin and delicate that it has broken out.
Plate 5337 Heavy and well decorated, the little sliding window is still functional The window itself is just an ornament and adds nothing to the security. Definitely for a display of wealth. It's not obvious how it was secured with only one hole for a fastener.
Plate 5349 Perhaps the most interesting feature of this plate is that it has been reused. The reverse shows scribed lines from a much larger design. Very thrifty, and I suppose it makes sense if the artisan sees an opportunity to save the cost of a piece of bronze sheet.
Plate 5358 This is a duplicate of Plate 5008
Plate 5359 Interesting, but I don't know how it works. The arm behind the front know can rotate only a few degrees, I think not enough to move a shutter. Don't know what the pointer in the window was intended to show. There was a lip folded over on the sides which is mostly broken off.
Chest Lock Plates and Groups, Images
In addition to the knob and nail types of fasteners described below, two other simpler types should be mentioned. The cotter pin was inherited from the Etruscans. It was generally made of wire with a circular cross section. These were sometimes used to attach plates, hasps, handles and decorations to caskets and chests. Examples can be seen in the sections illustrating those components. Handle 4962 is a good example, complete with backing plate. The other type is a bronze or iron rivet, peened over, with a washer acting as a backing plate. Such a combination can be seen on plate 5030 B, where it attaches a shutter.
Knobs 4887,4961 These small metal pieces are often found in association with chest fittings. They are sometimes described as "lock pins", but I would prefer to call them plate fasteners, not to be confused with tumbler/bolt pins. A number have been found at Vindolanda and at Augusta Raurica. Riha has a lengthy discussion of the various types, which may also have had various uses, both functional and decorative. Most are thought to have been used for fastening lock plates to wood chests and boxes. Ward says that "The hasped lock plates are comparatively plain, but were often held by bronze nails with more or less ornamental disc-shaped heads." The examples shown here are bronze knobs, cast around iron center pins. They are similar to types found at Augusta Raurica. The figure at right shows a plate with all pins in place..
5080 Nails, pins, brads, tacks, caps. Many fasteners were not nearly so prominent as knobs. There were a wide variety of rounded and decorative types such as this group.
5125 It's not possible to tell whether this was a fastener or decoration. Very attractive, though, and the 1 inch spike shows that it went into a pretty thick piece of wood: not a casket, for sure, but a heavy chest or door.
5191 Tiny fastener with bronze lion head and iron pin
5194 Most elaborate of the plain fasteners but missing the iron pin
5195 All bronze, decorated with a pattern of little knobs. Such fasteners probably came in sets which are now dispersed.
5227 Deep, strong pin, for a lock/wood thickness of about 0.75 inch
5228 This is a massive, heavy pin, surely for a door or chest. The tip is missing, but the total thickness would be at least t 1.4 inches. Of course, the actual resistance to forced entry would depend on the strength of the little pin that would secure it on the inside.
Bolts for Chest, Cabinet, Casket and Box Locks.
The market for bronze bolts appears to be saturated, and they can be purchased for a few dollars. At first glance, they are all much alike, with minor differences in the numbers, shapes and placement of pin holes. However, they are much more than pretty decorations for the collector of Roman security hardware. They have something to say about the construction of locks, whose remains are now fragmentary.
Many of the exact details of construction are still unsettled. Based on the residues on and in bolts, I believe that pins were mostly round and made out of iron wire. The shapes of the holes in the bolt are not of much consequence. A round pin would nearly always serve and was very much easier to make than tear drop or other exotic shapes. All pins on the key must have had corresponding holes in the bolt, but not all of them were necessary for functioning. Some bolts such as 4799 are found to have residue in some holes and nothing in others.
It must have been tempting for a locksmith to take a short cut and not install a pin for every hole. It seems likely to me that these locks would have been unreliable, and especially so for those with many pins. Such factors as poor fit, bending, breakage, corrosion and wear must have made them frustrating to use and have a short service life. Many keys are found with pins that were broken off or jammed in antiquity. I suggest that it's likely that mechanisms were lubricated with olive oil rather than thicker animal fat, and perhaps even had to be disassembled occasionally for cleaning and repair.
There are many subtleties in bolt design for anyone who cares about such esoterica. Some single bolts have wards on both sides, restricting both the width and depths of key bits. I found this in 6 of 78 bronze bolts, or about 8% and 3 of 3 iron bolts. Only bolt 5601 has a single ward on the front underside.
Incidentally, Needham p. 238 makes the amazing statement that "A variation in which the tumblers were made double (the lower portion remaining in the moving bolt), and in various lengths so that only a key with projections exactly of the right lengths would raise all the tumblers to the level of uniform clearance, was known as the 'Jewish lock' and this again has not been described from China".
The conventional wisdom is that the Romans never developed locks that could be operated from both sides. I have now seen enough bolts with pinning holes in heads and tabs or with extension arms that I don't believe it. I would say that while rare, they did exist. At the very least, some could be immobilized from one side to prevent entry.
The different types of bolts that I've observed can be summarized as follows:
Type 1 Single bolts
1a Full head
1b Narrow head
1c Side projection
1d Pinning holes in head
1e Center notch
1f Slot in head
Type 2 Double bolts
2a Narrow head
2b Split head
2c Split head with center tab
2d Double recurve
Type 3 Triple bolts
Types 1a and 1b,
I'm showing first images of a lock found at Pompeii, which has a bolt still in place (Biasiotti 119053L, 71468, 71469b). Note that not all the holes have pins in them! Thanks to such images, we know that the normal operating position of the bolt is with the head to the left and the tail to the right and opposite the lock plate. Bolts are now usually displayed with the bottom up, since that has nearly all the interesting details. The tail appears to have not only the purpose of stabilizing and guiding the bolt in a slot, but also serves as a stop for the end of the key on insertion.
I've assembled a group of 71 single bolts for this study. In this group, 51 are thinned or stepped down on the bottom side, typically starting about 0.75" from the left end. We can reasonably identify these steps as stops, intended to limit the entrance of the bolt into the chest door. No bolt has such a step on top.
Because of the lack of surviving support structures, I presume that these were always/usually/mostly made of wood. Similarly, it appears to me that the bolt was normally seated into wood, with one possible exception to be discussed below for a double bolt. I am not aware of any metal strikes that have been preserved.
53 bolts have notches in the head end, typically reducing the width by one third. Almost all notches are on the side away from the lock plate (I've seen one exception) and always end before the step up. The notch is probably the principal stop. I suggest that the reduced bolt width at the end also allows a stock bolt to be used with a thinner chest door that doesn' t have room for a full width bolt. Narrow bolts are 20% of the total, and there is even one, 4514, shown here, without ridge or notch. This interesting example also shows the slight taper usually found, presumably to allow the head to find the keep or receiver more easily. The two smaller, smooth, round holes probably have nothing to do with the original pin diameter, but result from cleaning since the bolt was dug.
Bolt 5181 provides some insight on the way in which bolt hole patterns were designed. It shows that there was an original wax model used for many patterns. There were originally six holes. For this example, two adjacent holes were (imperfectly) plugged with wax to create a four hole pattern. I haven''t worked out the number of combinations that were possible, but there would be quite a few
Almost all the holes in bolts are tapered, being slightly enlarged at the bottom. At first I attributed this to preferential corrosion and to wear from contact with the key, but I now believe that holes were made tapered deliberately by the locksmith, to make it a little easier to guide inaccurate key pins into inaccurate holes.
Bolt 4985 type 1a, is a perfect example of taper; there has been no preferential erosion of metal anywhere, yet the holes are wider at the bottom than at the top. Accurate measurements are difficult, but here is a pretty good summary. Dimensions in inches.
Hole number / Width top, inches / Width bottom / Taper
1 0.113" 0.128 0.015
2 0.091 0.120 0.129
3 0.106 0.139 0.033
4 0.125 0.157 0.132
5 0.115 0.150 0.035
6 0.101 0.127 0.026
7 0.084 0.119 0.035
8 0.114 0.133 0.019
The question of taper will be referred to again in connection with double bolt 4993
Bolt 4995 This tiny bolt is unlike any other that I've seen. The head and tail are perpendicular to the pin section. If the pin section is mounted horizontally as in a normal bolt, then both head and tail are vertical. The reason for this design is unknown, but it's probably for a tiny chest with a tiny lock and a tiny hasp. We have a maverick locksmith here, or perhaps one complying with a customer's whimsical requirements!
Bolt 4575. Iron bolts are rare today, probably because of the poor survivability of buried iron. However, they are not unknown, and one example is shown here. The question is, was iron an economic choice? Which was cheaper to manufacture, bronze or iron? And another unknown, were the Romans at all concerned about the rusting of iron artifacts?
Bolt 5061 There are still lots of unknowns about these matters and strange things are turning up all the time. Here's another bizarre piece of hardware: This is an iron bolt designed to accommodate one rectangular pin and one round pin. I suppose it would offer some security if you weren't expecting it, but it's pretty primitive!
Bolt 5108 Type 1a. This is just the heaviest I've found so far, weighing in at 1.8 oz (28 g). However, I've seen much larger ones, and I don't know how sturdy they get.
Bolt 5247 Unusual small iron bolt with two side wards. Short pin section with only two holes.
Bolt 5264 A bolt that is odd in several ways. The head and key sections are quite short. There is a deep front ward. The hole pattern is distinctive. Most unusual of all is the tab on the tail with a hole in it. Seems to me that it could only be for insertion of a pin. A pin implies that it is for locking the bolt from the back, which implies that it is for a door, and locking from both sides contradicts the conventional wisdom that Romans never developed such locks.
Bolt 5266 That's an intricate pin pattern, but I doubt that 12 pins were ever installed.
Bolt 5302 If we needed a demonstration that pinhole design was strictly functional, this would be it. Since the mechanism in the completed lock would not be visible, we have to assume that this bolt was designed to impress a customer, as in an item made strictly for display. This is supported by the pristine condition; it is clearly unused, almost too good to be true!
Type 1C, side projection
Bolts with "handles" seem to be very rare, and there are none in this collection. They are interesting and very much deserve mention, though, and have some puzzling aspects. I have to agree with Ward that they are for warded locks, and that the projection is necessary to move the bolt from the outside after lifting up the key to free the tumblers. The exterior of a lock using this type of mechanism is shown here in Ward's figure 4. There is an appropriate horizontal slot above the keyhole for the handle to slide. The keys that he shows as suitable for such a lock are shown in his figure 3, and are of the "French latch" type. They are not very common, either. Ward identifies the two shown as Guildhall examples.
The difficulty for me is that if these bolts are mounted normally, my interpretation of their positioning, with the worn side down and the "tail" opposite the lock plate, would place the handle on the inside. However, I can't see any other purpose for such a projection.
Vin46 This curious bolt came from the finds at Vindolanda. I believe this bolt and the following example were for door locks, and designed to allow the bolt to be moved from the inside as well as outside. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Romans never invented a lock that could be operated from both sides.
Detf8 Another example of a bolt with a side "handle", this one from Detector Finds 5.
Jacobi A bolt is shown in the Jacobi paper that he supposes to be for a small casket. Referring to the figure, there is a handle on one end of the bolt, and this is explained as a transitional mechanism between wood and metal locks. He shows the handle extending to the front and the lock is to be opened by pushing up with the key to free the tumblers (only) and sliding with the handle to move the bolt.
Type 1D, pinning holes in head
Bolt 4904. An unusual design with a split end featuring two vertical circular pieces. These extensions accommodated an iron pin, the remnants of which are still in place. I assume that this was for pinning the bolt when it was closed so that no key or pick could open it. I suggest that this was a trick lock, with the head of the pin concealed in the lock plate. This could have been done by hiding it under a knob, for example. The last time this bolt was used, something didn't fit quite right, causing the bolt to become bent and cracked. Takes a lot of applied force to do that!
Bolt 5061 Not sure, but I think that solitary hole is too far from the the other pin holes to be operated by the key. Can't see a reason for that anyway, so I think it had a different type of mechanism.
Type 1E, center notch
Bolt 4921 This one has no tail. Instead, the locksmith has cast or cut a notch in the side of the bolt, purpose unknown to me. Oddly, the pin holes are far to the rear of the bolt, extending all the way to the center of the notch. Therefore the notch could possibly have served as a key guide or even a pin hole for a very unusual key. Note that in all the examples in this collection that have notches: 4921, 5037, 5016 and 5041, (and in another that I've seen), the notch is always at the front of the bolt.
Bolt 5037. Much like 4921 in having a notch and no tail. Note the section immediately following the notch. It is beveled to a sharp edge, for some purpose not known to me.
Bolt 5163 Third example of a bolt with a notch and no tail. The head on this one is narrowed just a bit. Note again the pronounced bevel. That array of twelve tiny holes looks like a recipe for lock problems.
Bolt 5174 This one is both tiny and elaborate. I think the locksmith is just showing off; far too many little holes to be reliable, several different thicknesses and a long, delicate extension instead of a small notch. There's a large rust stain on one side where it has rested against an iron surface. It's a pretty bolt, but probably didn't work very well.
Type 1F, slot in head
Bolt 5019a,b This curious item has a full width head, but with an L-shape slot in the front. The purpose is unknown, but perhaps to accommodate a vertical guide pin?
Type 2, double bolts
Double bolts for top-opening containers are most interesting of all, in that they offer several more features that are not yet understood (by me). For chests using double hasps, the tail of the bolt is extended and recurved to catch the right-hand hasp. The configuration is the same for all double bolts in this collection; the working head extends only about 40% across the width of the bolt.
All the heads on double bolts that I have seen are either narrowed or split. I believe that the purpose of a split head on a bolt is simply to modify a stock design to fit into the loop on the hasp of a top opening casket rather than into the keeper on a side opening chest.
The image at left shows a double bolt with key in place (Osnabrueck) Views from the top are: bottom, front side, top.
The image at right shows a reconstruction of the operation of a mechanism using this type of bolt (Reich).e image at left shows a double bolt with key in place (Osnabrueck). Views from the top are: bottom, front side, top.
There is another interesting feature that I've observed about double bolts. Most of the examples, including some not in this collection, are curved, and always in the same direction. At first I thought that they got bent when the barbarians smashed the lock! Or after the owner lost the key and ditto. After seeing so many, though, I think they were made that way deliberately for containers with curved surfaces. However, if they did really conform closely to surfaces, the containers would be unreasonably large, probably much larger than capsae. Also, I haven't seen any curved cover plates.
There is also the question of the high ridges that appear on some bolts. From my limited experience, it seems that they are much more common on double bolts than on single ones. I can only speculate that they are wards, requiring a key with an unusual shape.
Type 2A, Narrow head
Bolt 4824. The pin holes are plugged with corroded iron, enough metal remaining to show magnetic attraction. There are several tiny black bubbles on the residual iron corrosion on both top and bottom surfaces above and below the pin holes.
Bolt 4926 The smallest bolt in the collection. This seems a little silly, since it would fit hasps only 1.5" apart. Perhaps for a child's box of goodies?
Bolt 4799H. This is part of chest lock group 4799, which is a nice illustration of how the double hasp latching system worked.
Bolt 5040 That irregularity at the right end is where the bolt was broken off the sprue after casting, and not cleaned up by a sloppy artisan. That tells me what the wax assembly looked like at the foundry. I hadn't seen this before because all respectable shops cleaned up such irregularities. A suggested casting assembly is shown in 5040e.
Bolt 5046 An unusually thick and heavy bolt, mostly 0.4" thick. In the center is a beveled section about 0.7" wide. This bolt isvery much stronger than necessary, and is surely for a cupboard or very substantial chest.
Bolt 5222 Delicate and elegant with a deep ward ridge, suitable for a jewelry casket..
Type 2B Split head
Bolt 5015 Very prominent guides and stops. Rear guide has a pronounced bevel.
Type 2C Split head with center tab
A bolt of this type found in Britain is shown by Ward
Bolt 5016 This is the one of the most complex and interesting bolts I've seen. It has several features suggesting that there was originally much more mechanism. The bolt head is split, I assume because it is designed to fit into a hasp rather than a keeper. A beveled tab has been added in the center of the bolt, which has two sections, with two different bevel angles. In one section there are the rust products of an iron pin, in which there is remains still enough metallic iron to be magnetic. It could perhaps be a double locking device in which a pin is dropped in from some outside control.
Bolt 5041 Another interesting one, with the extreme split bolt end and beveled tab in the middle and deep ridges. I have rejoined a recently broken off section at the tail as shown in image 5041c. Image 5041a shows the two sides of that break, and that intergranular corrosion had penetrated entirely through the bronze, making it very brittle and fragile. There was another break at the end, this one made in antiquity. Image 5041b shows what I believe the bolt looked like originally.
Type 2D Double recurved
Moss27 From Mossman, p.27 This is evidently a double bolt, but both ends have recurves to pin and release hasps.
Type 3 Triple bolt with top arm, ("scorpion")
Bolt 4993. A "scorpion bolt". This is an extraordinary and valuable bolt, not for its quality, which is poor, but for the questions it suggests about the construction and use of chest locks. From examination, it appears to have begun as a wax model for a fairly standard bolt and modified for some special design of lock. Tool marks and irregularities show that these modifications were performed by a very unskilled workman. A long piece of wax was crudely cut and fused to the original "tail" to make it into a bolt for a double hasp. A second piece was fused to this assembly, pointing upward when the bolt is in the normal operating position. The top of this spike points forward and the whole arm was aligned so that it was in the correct position to operate a third hasp. It's not proved that that was its actual function, but I made the following observation: if bolt 4993 is matched up with the reverse of plate 5030, it is a near fit (4993/5030), and we have also found a purpose for that top slot! I don't wish to imply that these two pieces were from the same lock. This also explains why there is that crack at the base of the arm: someone tried to throw the bolt when that top hasp was slightly misaligned and head #3 struck the hasp rather than the loop.
All the holes but one in the bolt are more or less plugged by the residues of iron pins, and the top of the bolt shows that it was in contact with an iron plate. The holes are tapered as usual, but this was not done by wear, as evidenced by the prominent ridge around one hole. This shows that the "wear" always found on the underside of a bolt began where the hole was relieved for easier entry of the key. These are, after all, low tech mechanisms and required loose tolerances to operate at all! However, this is not to deny the obvious wear and corrosion found on all or nearly all bolts.
A deep notch was cut in the forward end of the bolt, again very crudely. On the underside, the remains of an iron plate are now attached to the bronze with corrosion; some metallic iron remains. An outline can be seen on both top and bottom where ordinary cast bronze bolt. Then it was modified for some special installation, and the corrosion residues show that all the there was contact with iron plates. There are two tiny bubbles that appear on the iron, similar to welding spatter. This is the only example I've seen of "weeping" corrosion. An iron residue can also be seen inside one arm of the cut. The conclusion must be that the bolt when closed was seated in an iron keeper, which was attached to a wood frame. The fact that no such fittings have been reported previously may be due to their fabrication from perishable iron, but more likely because normally bolts just seated in wood. Very few bolts show iron residues on the end, which may also be due in part to their last moments of service. The vast majority of chests must have been abandoned, lost or destroyed with their locks in the open position. The owners just cleaned out their chests ahead of the barbarians at the gates and didn't bother to relock them. Why should they, since they were empty?
Vin49. Another example of such a "scorpion bolt" with a vertical recurved extension is in the Vindolanda report, # 49, shown here. This top projection is bent over slightly so that the end lines up with the center of the bolt head.
Bolt 5193 From the stub on the top shown in 5193C it appears that there was an extension arm, broken off in antiquity. From this and from the similar features seen in the complex designs in other double and triple bolts, this is another Type 3 bolt. It does not have the split head, however. I believe that the deep skirts on front and right side of the bolt hole pattern were simply a security device, requiring a type of pick with a longer reach than usual.
Types 2 and 3 Double and triple bolts
Types 2B, 2C
Chest Lock Hasps
Not every chest or box lock would have required a metal hasp, and the number of hasps available today is much smaller than the number of bolts or keys. Each has at least one loop at the lower back for the bolt and most are rectangular. However, several in this collection are circular. I've never seen a bolt with a circular head, and I think that in order to ensure a fit, this shape would require a bolt with a pointed end. These are to be found only in double hasp bolts.
All hasps that I am aware of were made of cast bronze. The main style of fastening at the top is a simple horizontal hole which could revolve on a circular fitting. All figural hasps except for 5019 are of this type. The other style is a hinge, with a pin through it to accommodate a mounting fixed to the chest. These are more common in non-figural hasps.
Type 1 Figural Hasps
The most desirable and expensive hasps were and are those cast with the figures of persons. The herm was adapted to this usage. A herm is a rectangular stone or bronze pillar supporting the bust of Hermes, with male genitalia toward the base of the pillar. They were used as boundary markers by the Greeks, and later were adopted by the Romans as a traditional art form. Themes for the miniature bronze herms made for casket hasps were extended to include various gods, soldiers, animals and important persons, mostly unidentifiable at this time. It has been suggested that lars, or household gods were sometimes represented, but I don't suppose it's possible to confirm that. I expect that the models for figural hasps have complex histories. Some features are blurred by corrosion. I suppose these were top-of-the-line products, but even here the quality is variable, ranging from crude effigies to minor works of art. Curiously, no figural hasps were found at provincial Augusta Raurica.
Hasp 4916 Unidentified
Hasp 4929 Unidentified
Hasp 4994 Venus/Aphrodite washing sea foam from her hair.
Hasp 5017 Woman with right hand to chest, left over groin
Hasp 5019 The dolphin motif, a Roman favorite.
Hasp 5022 Woman with folded arms
Hasp 5038 Unidentified
Hasp 5045 Unidentified
Hasp 5118 Alleged to be Mercury
Hasp 5145 Unskillfully modeled figure of a female (I think) with some sort of fastening about her shoulders. Nice, though, that the cotter pin type fastening was left with it. It's about one inch long, which would make this a hasp for a chest rather than a casket.
Hasp 5146 This is the smallest one I've seen, standing just 1 3/4 inches tall. The features are pretty sketchy at this size, and I can't tell who it was intended to be. I expect the lock, key and the rest of the hardware would be correspondingly small.
Hasp 5229 Large, excellent condition and elaborate decoration. Features well done and the body textured.
Hasp 5237 This is the same figure as hasp 5145, with only minor differences in execution.
Hasp 5277 There is a lot of encrustation, especially on the back. But the main feature is of course the upside-down female head, which is unusually well done for a hasp
Hasp 5289 Complete and unusual hasp, with a relatively massive top mounting still attached. A bit of the rusty concretion has flaked off the back, showing an intact hinge. The cast-in fastener is still present and blunted on the end, allowing us to see the thickness of the wood to which it was attached.
Type 2 Double Hasps
Usually a single hasp was all that was required, but a few were made for two bolts on the same (left) side. These images have not been separated out: see type 2 and 4 images.
Hasp 4977 Unidentified, but this appears to be a military figure wearing the tunica segmentata. From the Wikipedia, "the currently accepted range for the use of the armour is from about 9 B.C.E. to the late 3rd century C.E.". This would date the hasp, but not very well.
Hasp 5032 Hercules, in a conventional pose with lion skin and club.
Hasps 4977b and 5032b Reverse, showing loops
Hasp 5050 Another version of Venus; excellent modeling, but unfortunately the bottom loop was broken off in antiquity
Hasp 5069 Third example of a Venus hasp. Compare to 4994 and 5050 above. Evidently all three were copied from a single piece of statuary. Oddly, all 3 Venus have front-to-back mounting holes, while the rest have side-to-side holes. It seems we're missing some little design conventions here and there. Roman trivia, you might say, but perhaps it has something to do with the purpose of the boxes they were used on.
Hasp 5113 Very nicely detailed, perfect condition and with excellent patina, perhaps a figure of Hermes.
Type 3 Offset Hasps
This image has not been separated out: see type 4 images
Hasp 4984 Occasionally we find hasps that have an offset in them, such as 4984. This requires the locks to have been mounted on a wood or metal extension protruding from the surface, rather than on the surface itself. I suggest that one reason for this practice might have been that it allowed lock makers to prefabricate some of their wares, and build up a stock to allow fast service for a customer. A prefab lock could then just be nailed or pinned to the chest. 4894b is the back side of 4894, showing what appears to be the remnants of a wire cable.
Type 4 Geometric Hasps
Plain or decorated, I suggest that these would be the norm if the customer did not have a special need or desire for the luxury figural model.
Hasp 4892 The "standard" design seems to have been a strip of metal, decorated with various combinations of bands, cuts or other embossed or engraved geometric designs, such as the circle/dot.. I assume that 4892 is a Christian motif. A similar hasp is shown in Malloy, #1706
Hasp 5135 I think this is just random decoration, but to my eyes it looks like a bizarre creature holding a heart in each hand!
Hasp 5204 This one is iron, and much different in style from the bronzes. It must be for a box, since I don't think the cotter pin attachment would serve for anything heavier, like a chest.
Hasps 5238, 5242 This interesting pair appears at first glance to be a matched set, but is not. They are of the same general design, decorated with half-moon holes, lines across at the bottom, right angle bend over the top of the container, fastening with a cotter pin and each for double bolts. These could certainly have been used on the same container, but 5242 is thicker and three times as heavy.
Hasp 5238 1.1 oz, 32 g,
Hasp 5242 3.4 oz, 96 g, with cotter pin.
Hasp 5244 Plain strip, but nicely decorated: tulips, looks like. The hinge is filled with the remains of an iron pin.
Hasp 5254 Perhaps figural: alleged stylized duck at the end. I do see markings that resemble a tail.
Hasp 5255 This hasp with a spade-shape tip is unique in having a double slot for attachment of the top fastener.
Hasp 5256 I note that this one was very carefully made, much better than average workmanship.
Hasp 5270 This one uses the traditional circle-dot motif as an all-over pattern. It is an unusual construction: About half way down there is an overlap between top and bottle sections. No evidence of soldering, so I think it was done in the wax stage. Evidently the locksmith had a stock of such pieces, which could be joined to make a custom length for containers of various sizes. I can think of no other reason for such an offset.
As with other fittings, chest handles were often elaborately decorated, depending on the taste and wealth of the owner.
Triton. Shown here is a Triton, a figural handle from Augusta Raurica (from Emile Riha).
Handle 4896 The others from my own collection include 4896 in a similar style
Handle 4962 Folding, fastened to its decorative rosette with a Roman cotter pin, and shows significant wear from usage.
Handle 4979 Figural, the only herm I've seen used as a handle. Unidentified male.
Handle 5087 Iron, but not unattractive, with twisted body and carefully made loops at the ends
Handle 5100 So nicely done it looks like it was turned on a lathe, but of course wasn't. This and 5135 would be upscale models, not as expensive as the figurals but definitely better than plain handles usually seen.
Handle 5142 Here's the version of the "kissing dolphins" with open mouths. I wonder if that made it more expensive!
Handle 5197 Figural handle with two birds, perhaps ducks? The back fitting, broken off in antiquity, probably contained a mounting fixture of some sort.
Handle 5202 Matched pair of casket handles. The wires are carefully made: square in cross section, tapered toward the ends and decorated The heads have Egyptian-looking headdresses.
Handle 5235 A very solid, functional, no-nonsense handle for a heavy box or chest.
Handle 5239 I listed this in the decoration section because it was so tiny, but I now think that it must be a handle for a small casket.
Handle 5240 This was offered as a "Roman bronze item", but I think it has to be a handle.
Handle 5253 Elegant and delicate, it must be for a casket or a small box.
Handle 379 Huge, massive double ended iron military handle. This is so sturdy it must have been used to lift or carry something extremely heavy. A very large crate or box, at least.
Handle 5286 Extraordinary large and detailed figural chest handle. Eagle heads are emerging from snakes, or perhaps foliage?
Handle 5345 Most unusual heart shape handle
Handle 5353 Looks like a handle, but the reverse is completely flat. The holes show that it was meant to be fastened to a flat surface. This may be a decoration.
Handle 5366 Very sturdy, perhaps for a heavy chest.
Handle 5368 Possibly a chest handle, but could be a lifting ring.
Casket And Chest Legs
One difficulty in collecting chest and casket legs is that it is difficult to be certain of their uses, since they are always found detached. Legs, or at least feet, are also sometimes used for miscellaneous containers such as the capsa, as shown below, the pyxis, or cosmetic jar, and the acerra, or incense box as shown at right (Wikipedia).
Leg 5139 Don't know what fraction of caskets were given legs. Judging from the number I've seen, the number would be small. Just another embellishment option offered to rich folks, I would guess.
Leg 5154 Can't quite tell how this one was attached, but maybe something has been broken off. All these legs have suffered some damage, probably from careless handling or accidents in antiquity: dropped, fallen or smashed..
Leg 5157 Thick, sturdy leg decorated on the front with an animal head. There is a nail hole for fastening to the bottom of a wood casket. The space left for fitting into the casket frame is angular so that the wood front was not just a straight rectangular board. Or just possibly it was designed to not accommodate a wood piece at all, leaving an openwork leg.
Leg 5164 Well done lion leg, with a hole for a decorative ring in hid mouth. Two holes in the tang for vertical nails and one in the lion's neck for a horizontal nail.
Leg 5167 This is a curious artifact. It was alleged to be a casket let. However, it has some odd features. There are no holes for mounting pins or any indication of soldering. The back view shows a curved support surface, as though it was for a circular container. There are some capsae with legs, as shown in the accompanying figure, but an estimate of the diameter of such a cylinder from the curvature of the piece is no more than 3 inches, about the size of a coffee mug. The exact usage of this leg is therefore uncertain.
Leg 5213 Very nice example of the classic lion's paw let. Tlhe lion was greatly admired by the Romans as an image of strength, and was used to decorate all kinds of artifacts.
Leg 5214 Rather bony claws, probably a different creature from 5213. The style of support is different, too.
Leg 5217 Small leg, allegedly an eagle talon! Similar to the others, but about the right size for a casket.
Leg 5218 Large, heavy claw foot, probably for a chest. Top broken off in antiquity
Leg 5243 Not sure what kind of creature this is.
Leg 5314 The gryphon, big footed and stubby winged
Leg 5363 This would be the standard, no-frills utilitarian box leg.
Casket and Chest Decorations
The difficulty with decorations is that many items were used to decorate several types of artifacts: furniture, chests, clothing, vehicles, etc. Very often, the fluted rings that accompany plate groups are offered as handles, but these are probably decorations, especially as so many are found in some plate groups. The use of movable fluted rings as decorations is a peculiarly Roman usage. They were attached to chests with clips which are instantly recognizable to us as cotter pins! Other types of decorative attachments are known, but seem to have often become separated from the other hardware. The usual way of identifying them is by remaining pins or by attachment pin holes, as in 5062.
Decorations 5062 The plate composed of a circle with two side "wings" is a favorite decoration, (sometimes called a propeller) and I assume that it represents a sun with rays (Apollo?) Note its use again in hinge 5024.
Decoration 5072 appears to be a decoration for a box about three inches wide. It has a simple decoration of scribed lines, and shows traces of silver plating. It is serrated on one edge only, for no obvious reason. The heads of two pins remain.
Decoration 5298 This was alleged to be a box corner, but I don't think so. The top edge is a break rather than a straight side. I will accept it as a mount, probably a fragment from a.side strip. It shows the reclining figure of Intercidona, grasping an axe. Intercidona was a minor Roman deity, one of three who were invoked to protect a newborn child by driving away Sylvanus, the wild woodland spirit of trees, Intercidona's function was to provide the axe to be used to cut the trees and thus drive away the spirit. This mount might therefore be used on a crib, or container for an infant's garments.
The Romans had a deity for just about everything. Cardea was the goddess of door hinges, among other things, and protector of the exteriors of houses. Many hinges were found at Augusta Raurica. Chest hinges do not often appear on the market. One reason for this may be that some hinges were made of leather, which survives burial only in special environments. Other hinges are very plain, and may have been unrecognized and discarded by finders. That of course does not apply to archaeologists, who save every tiny bit (forever).
Hinge 5009 Shown here is a very sturdy and attractive hinge in bronze. Note that the hinge does not correspond to the edge of the surface on which it is mounted.
Hinge 5024 Interesting hinge with a very modern appearance, but notice the traditional Roman winged disk motif
Hinge 5070 Delicate twining vine design
Hinge 5085 This is an odd one. The front plate is shaped at the top to retain the hinge pin, then continued down the back to form a narrow strap. The cross and slot cutouts on the front may be just decorative, but the slots could also have been used to retain a strap. Also the side slots look a bit like strap or ribbon retainers. However, whatever embellishments it may have had, this is definitely a hinge, and there are remnants of the iron pin at the top. The separation of front and back show that it was mounted on a thin plate, probably of metal. The hole in the back strap is broken out, but back and front were joined by a fastener through the front center hole.
Hinge 5090 Offered as a chest lock plate, but the pin mount at the top makes it either a hinge or a hasp. If it were a hasp, the vertical slot would require it to fit over an exposed staple for a padlock in the modern manner, so for now I'm guessing it's just an odd hinge.
Hinge 5164 This was alleged to be a door hinge, but I think not. Although it has an impressive thickness of 0.14", the pin is quite slender, about 0.18". Looks reasonable for a chest or cupboard.
Hinge 5201 Iron, suitable for a cupboard or cabinet. Nail holes are visible, but the joint is broken off.
Hinge 5274 Bronze, very modern in appearance, battered but when new would not looked out of place on a contemporary cabinet door.
Hinge spike 5294 Hinge spikes are sold and used to this day. I don't know what the function of the construction at the top is.
Cabinet and Chest Hasps, Images
Geometric Hasps, Images
Casket And Chest Handles, Images
Chest and Chest Decorations, Images
Casket and Chest Legs, Images
Roman combination locks are exceedingly rare, and I have found few references to them. There is a brief mention of their existence by Stockmyer (kcmetro). Another reference is on a web page from the University of Osnabrueck (Osnabrueck) where is shown a photo of two knobs from a Roman combination lock, with little further explanation. There are four complete examples whose locations are known and for which images are available. There may be others as yet unpublished and still others that may yet be found.
Kerameikos The first reference (Hoepfner, 1970) describes what seems to be a complete example of a box lock. It is ascribed to Roman imperial times, and appears to be little known to lock historians and collectors. It was found in a grave in the Kerameikos (potters field), the ancient graveyard of Athens, and has been analyzed in detail.
The text of the article is in German, and it appeared in a journal not readily accessible to U.S. collectors. However, I have translated it into English in order to understand how the lock worked, and the description was taken from this (imperfect) translation. Shown here are a drawing of the front surface of the lock and a reconstruction showing how it might have been mounted on a box.
The lock is of bronze and is composed of three rotating knobs mounted on a lock plate, controlling the movement of a bolt into a conventional hasp. To open, the three knobs must be aligned in the proper directions. Its mechanism is extremely simple, and would provide minimal security to anyone familiar with the concept of combination locks, but may have been baffling at the time. It may even have been just a high-tech toy for a wealthy patron. As an invention, it is an amazing piece of work.
Herculaneum The second lock is also built into a box. It was excavated at Herculaneum, and the image shown here is from the National Geographic in 1982 (Judge). Unfortunately the text specifically describing it is only half a sentence: "an ingenious combination-lock money box that still held two coins". It was found with the remains of a woman in a chamber at the beach, where residents had fled, hoping to be rescued. The context shows that this was a treasured possession, taken by its owner when all other small valuables had to be abandoned.
Benaki The third lock is now in a case at the Benaki Musem in Athens, image is courtesy of Gary Fugate. It is all that is available at this time, but more information may be forthcoming. This is a padlock with a human face in bronze and six knobs around the edge of the lock.. The lock does not appear in the Benaki online photo archive.
Fugate Most elaborate and complex of all is this four dial padlock found in 1955 near Ingolstadt, south Germany (Fugate). The lock is made of bronze, with four silver knobs. There is incised Roman lettering filled with niello, reading VTIF ELIX. Major parts were made by lost wax casting. There are a total of 30 parts. One knob is missing and two others incomplete. Total weight is 173 grams, probably originally about 180 grams. Case diameter is 58 mm.
The lock can be opened when each dial is turned so that the chin of each silver face is aligned with a preset letter of the Roman alphabet incised on the lid. This allows the slotted dial set plates to line up with a post on the sliding lock plate. When all four dials align, the plate can slide just enough for the shackle retainer pin to disengage from the shackle. A square post projects through the center of the lid to allow the sliding plate below to be moved away from the shackle. The combination was changeable by simply removing one of the four dial keeper pins and rotating the combination position plates into another hole.
I note that the case design, of protruding curved ribs separated by lines, is similar to many of the barrel locks shown in the section on padlocks. .
Combination Locks, Images