The Romans used many locks for many purposes, as we do. There were door locks, chest locks and padlocks in great variety, but there were situations in which it was awkward to use any of these. Bags of newly minted coins were shipped to and from the provinces. Shipments of goods in fabric or leather containers needed some sort of protection. And then there were letters. Then as now, government officials, politicians, merchants and especially military commanders needed to send messages, sometimes very urgently. For state business, at least, this was done by an ancient version of the pony express, the Cursus Publicus: a system of relays of couriers traveling the famous Roman roads.
There was, however, a security problem: no one but the recipient could be allowed to read sensitive information. Messages were usually written with a stylus on wood tablets, surface-coated with wax (Curle). But how do you make sure that no one reads them but the recipients? How do you know that a bag hasnít been opened and a few goodies stolen?
One solution to these problems was the seal box. This was a little bronze box, generally an inch or so in size, with holes in the side and bottom. For fabric and leather containers, it was attached by sewing through the holes in the bottom. Message tablets were probably bagged. Containers were bound with cord passing through the holes in each side and tied with a knot inside the box. The box was then filled with wax, impressed with the senderís seal and closed. Of course containers could still be opened and the contents read or stolen, but there would be severe consequences! Boxes have been found with traces of wax inside (Wikipedia) and there is one such in this collection. A sketch of the packaging scheme for message tablets is shown at right, from Holmes.
It seems very strange from our point of view, that of a mechanical civilization with billions of such little objects, but seal boxes were rare and important items. They were lost wax castings made with considerable labor and expense. They were often elaborately decorated and some were even finished with colored enamel, some examples of which are shown here. Figural designs were most impressive, but of course more expensive. The embossed phallus was popular, as were animal figures. I haven't found any details of their manufacture and distribution, but the casting in bronze would be pretty straightforward. Roman smiths were very skillful..
The seal box seems to have been a peculiarly Roman invention and as an artifact of their civilization, did not survive them. It would be interesting to determine when their use ended. It would probably be prior to the fourth century, since there was no known (to me) transfer to the Byzantine society. The function seems to have been taken over by other sealing devices. The wax seal/signet ring/seal stamp combination has persisted until recent times, as has the lead seal. These will be shown in the following sections.
Box 5001 White enamel in the V and outer circle, central enamel looks like it was red, now missing. I can't tell what the central figure represents.
Box 5002 This is the most commonly found seal box. Often associated with the military, it has a simple design of cast-in concentric circles.
Box 5031 In most boxes, the lid, guided by the hinge, simply met the top of the base, and there was a tab-in-hole latching provision at the bottom. In the square boxes shown here, the lid actually fitted down over the base to make a true box. In 5031a we see a piece of the original sewing cord stuck to the inside of the base. It's unclear how this could have happened, but perhaps it was preserved by wax. In 5031b is shown a view of the bottom of the base, and the holes filled by the cord and corrosion products.
Box 5057 This is an especially well preserved example, with functioning bronze hinge and bottom tip detent. White and green enamel on the lid.
Box 5059 Perhaps the most coveted seal boxes are those with embossed lids. They may be fish, birds, animals, even persons. This one is a bird lid.
Box 5091 Embossed figure of a ram (?). The hinge has mostly eroded away, but the box remains corroded shut
Box 5092 Embossed with a cockerel.
Box 5112 Bronze box with iron hinge, lid divided into quadrants with a figure in each. Possibly a script, but nothing I recognize.
Box 5115 Nice three dimensional style, somewhat like a ship's helm. But isn't, of course. This one is still full of its original brown wax, but I don't see any traces of cord..
Box 5120 Embossed lid with a head of what is alleged to be a wolf. Actually, it looks more like a fox to me. Anyway, a spectacular figural.
Box 5179 Similar to box 5031 but larger. Very rusty iron pin, and box is corroded closed. These featureless boxes show that for some circumstances, a featureless functional article would do just fine and cost was evidently a significant factor.
Box 5188 Rooster running left
Box 5199 Two facing figures
Box 5208 Decorated with bird in white enamel.
Box 5209 This cross is not a Christian motif; I'd never expect to see that. I think a quadraphallic. Probably riveted on, but cannot be opened to check.
Box 5210 A well known type, with colorful enamels.
Box 5212 This rectangular box has an odd device attached, somewhat like that of Box 5209. It is hinged at the top, and the bottom side is nicely beveled for unrestricted opening.
Box 5215 Similar to Box 5001, except slightly larger. It has a different curious central shape, which I also cannot identify. It also appears to have enamel of the same colors, now missing.
Box 5241 Complete box, except for hinge pin. The Roman eagle, riveted on applique.
Box 5250 Very fancy, with silver inlay. There may have been a decorative centerpiece, now missing.
Box 5268 The iron center post is probably to mount a now missing applique. The encrustation seems to have grown from inside the box, and even poured through the aperture between top and case.
Box 5272 The design is still attractive, but I think all those little cups were originally filled with colored enamels.
Box 5280 Seems a bit unusual to have an enamel decoration not covering the entire plain box front..
Box 5285 Phallic applique with a round greenish gray enamel inlay. This is a lid only.
Seal Boxes, Images
The signet ring was another security device, and was intimately connected with seal boxes as well as with personal wax seals. It was a signature, and the best guarantee that a message from the sender was authentic. However, it should be noted that not all signet rings are of a size and/or shape that they could be accommodated by all seal boxes. No doubt some were used in the way most familiar to us; that is, to stamp on an unboxed blob of wax. And perhaps some were not really intended to be used at all, except as ornaments. The world is awash in Roman rings, and signet rings must be a very well
populated branch of collecting. The world is also infested with fake Roman seal rings (artifakes). They are relatively easy to make and find a ready market. I admit to having been a victim myself a few times. I think all those shown here are ok, but wouldn't bet the farm on it. For perhaps more than you really wanted to know about the history of the ring, see Kunz, from which the drawing at left of a Byzantine seal ring is taken. In Byzantium much more use was made of seals than of locks, coupled with harsh penalties for breaking them. They got broken anyway.
Impressions. Impressions often give a better idea of a seal than examination of the actual ring. Most of the impressions shown here, in blue, are computer simulations. These can give a very accurate and detailed image, depending of course on the quality of the original photo. Lighting is everything!
Ring 349 This one has a lion figure that would do credit to an abstract expressionist some 1800 years later.
Ring 435 The engraved device shows a pair of opposing lituus, or priest's staffs. These were wands carried as symbols of office by augurs and used in carrying out the rituals for the foretelling of future events.
Ring 436 Bearing the outline of a running hare.
Ring 444 Bird on a branch, with foliage. A standing bird was a very common motif for seals.
Ring 445 Stylized plant Delicate ring with plant motif carried on to the shoulders.
Ring 447 Athena on an iron ring. Bezel surface has a coppery finish. Don't know how, when or even why it was applied. Gods were favorite themes for signets. Remarkable survival for this one.
Ring 449 Bull
Ring 453 This was alleged to be Helios, the sun god, but is actually a female dancer with swirling robes.
Ring 455 Bull, simple but attractive version
Ring 456 Deer, running left
Ring 457 Design, don't know what it means, if anything
Ring 459 Another lituus
Ring 460 Alleged by the seller to be a sea creature! Actually it is two animals, but I can't tell what they are or what they are doing. The top one is a quadruped and the other a strange looking beast.
Ring 471 A pair of feathers. Traces of gilding remain on the bezel.
Ring 474 Not sure, could be a ship?
Ring 475 A swan.
Ring 476 Plants and flowers
Ring 477 Springing lion
Ring 478 Another lituus
Ring 479 Striding figure
Ring 480 A stork
Ring 481 Springing lion
Ring 483 A female, alleged to be Athena
Ring 485 Two persons facing and clasping hands. Dressed formally in long garments, suggesting that this depicts an important event.
Ring 487 Crouching lion
Ring 489 Silphium seeds were used as an aphrodisiac, and the plant was therefore hunted to extinction! Symbolic of love and sex, and alleged to be the origin of the use of the heart to represent love.
Ring 490 Figure with animal, perhaps a horse
Ring 491 Horse with rider and two standing figures
Ring 492 Two standing figures
Ring 507 I recognize a lituus, but not the rest of the squiggles
Ring 511 Two Victories
Ring 514 Hippocamp. In Roman mythology, the hippocamp was a sea horse, that is, a creature with the front quarters of a horse and the tail of a fish. The hippocamp was not the sea horse that we know, but the creature shown at left, an image from an Etruscan bowl (Maravot). The function of the hippocamp in Greek and Roman mythology was to pull Neptune's chariot.
Ring 515 Another hippocamp
Ring 566 Late Byzantine, inscribed Dimitrius
Ring 575 Inscribed with the initials K A L, presumably those of its owner.
Ring 587 Bull
Ring 588 Antelope
Ring 604 Leaf
Ring 610 This is the iconic Roman she-wolf and twins
Ring 611 Nice design, but I don't know what was intended. Possibly a tree? No doubt some designs were intensely personal, with meanings only for their original owners.
Ring 613 Standing figure, but I don't know what that is beside her.
Ring 620 Stylized bird
Ring 623 Seal rings with inscriptions are uncommon. I can't read this one and don't even know what language it is.
Ring 634 Very attractive floral design
Ring 637 Two fish on a string
Ring 682 Woman and prow
Ring 711 Person grasping something, likely foliage, in each hand. This ring is iron, an unusual survival!
Ring 728 Hermes, with attributes of husbandry.
Ring 996 This is the lightning bolt of Zeus, striking through the clouds.
Ring 1084 Acquired this one just as a curiosity. It is not Roman, although possibly by a Roman artisan. It is Visigoth, from the 6th century. It came from Spain, so that is its probable origin.
Seal Rings, Images
Seal Stamps, Images
Clamshell Seals, Images
I suppose the stamp seal was for purposes that were less as a personal signature and more as a higher volume, even institutional use. Most were supplied with a loop at the top so that they could be worn on a cord or thong, but seem more functional and less personal than a seal ring. They were used on wax to authentic papyrus documents or on clay seals. They come in a wide variety of handles, shapes and sizes. Since most of them have figures or text that I cannot translate, there may be some errors in attribution. Stamp seals should not be confused with bread stamps. For information on these, see Phosphora and Galvaris.
Some stamps, now taken out of context, cannot be identified with certainty, especially if not well executed.
I would prefer the term seal stamp or seal matrix, but the terminology is so embedded in literature and usage that I will use it rather than tilt at that particular windmill.
Stamp seal 484 This one I believe to be another pair of silphium seeds, with a stem. The body of the stamp is crudely made: no waste of money or artistic talent here! The seal wafer itself is thin, made separately and soldered onto the body. Interesting and quite unusual.
Stamp seal 493 Alleged to be from Sirmium. Fancy cursive inscription.
Stamp seal 497 Byzantine bronze pendant stamp with person and bush or tree?
Stamp seal 500 Byzantine bronze pendant stamp with inscribed initials
Stamp seal 501 Tiny and delicate, and I have no idea what the markings mean. This one looks to me more like Islamic than Byzantine.
Stamp seal 502 Similar and probably related to 501 in some way
Stamp seal 508 Also very small pendant stamp but not at all delicate. A person or a twining vine, can't really tell.
Stamp seal 521 Alleged to be Roman, but the combination looks very Byzantine to me. I don't think it's initials; looks like an arrow, crescent moon and anchor.
Stamp seal 523 The tip was broken off in antiquity. From the shape and context I believe it was the remainder of a stylus. That and a seal stamp would make a very reasonable combination.
Stamp seal 536 Alleged to be the evil eye, but I think not. More likely just the traditional sun sign.
Stamp seal 557 Pretty nice pelican stamp, about 1 inch long
Stamp seal 571 An odd character, and its mirror image. I think I've seen this symbol before, but can't remember where.
Stamp seal 581 Unusually ornate and attractive metalwork. Very nice bird.
Stamp seal 597 Another bird; they seem to have been very popular. This one is unusually small; only about 1/2 inch tall and as wide. A stamp this small would inevitably be worn on a cord around the neck.
Stamp seal 602 I don't know quite what to make of this one. It is certainly a seal stamp in all respects, but is made entirely of lead. I suppose it must have been a votive object, but I didn't expect to see one in the form of a seal stamp. It isn't a pendant, since the condition of the hole, with flashing still present, shows it was never worn on a cord. Partial white oxide patina remaining.
Stamp seal 616 Stag. Ex Prof. Stein collection.
Stamp seal 635 Figural something. Perhaps bones or a tree? Ex Stein
Stamp seal 641 Peacock. Ex Stein
Stamp seal 648 I was surprised to see this one, a five-sided stamp. The main stamp on the bottom is a male with extravagant curls, wearing a robe. The four sides are engraved with various patterns of lines, perhaps with meanings, but maybe just decoration 648b looks somewhat like a bird.
Stamp seal 654 Standing creature with long neck. This is an unusually tiny stamp, standing only 0.37" high.
Stamp seal 655 Glob with very long neck, perhaps intended to be a swan or sea creature. Compare with Seal Ring 475.
Stamp seal 656 Standing bird right.
Stamp seal 664 The Roman eagle. Unusual large design with flat handle.
Stamp seal 665 Standing bird right, under star and crescent moon.
Stamp seal 700 Iron, with a long handle. This is pretty crude, but I see a large crescent moon and some stars. This is quite an unusual stamp, with the design embossed rather than the usual intaglio. I suggest it was used for stamping glass gaming tokens. It is eminently suitable for that purpose, and the customers would certainly not care about the craftsmanship.
Stamp seal 727 Man holding a pair of horses. This is an elaborate example of the Master of the Animals motif, which was perhaps a hunting deity popular in various cultures in the Near East. At right is a similar image on a cylinder seal. Except on this one, it looks like the unhappy pair are deer or goats.
Stamp seal 734 Horse and rider. Alleged to be Byzantine from the 12th century.
Stamp seal 739 This was alleged to be a tool for stamping images into pottery clay. That may be, but considering that long sharp "handle", I think it just as likely that it is an unused decorative fastener for furniture, chest or some such wooden article.
Stamp seal 759 Byzantine with inscription, but it's all Greek to me.
Stamp seal 1003 Horse and rider. The stem of the seal matrix is hollow and has been filled with lead.
Stamp Seals, Clamshell
I've placed these seal matrices in a separate section, since they are so distinctive. I know next to nothing about them, except that they seem to come from what are now the Balkans, and I believe them at this point to have been late Roman or early Byzantine. I don't know whether they were intended to be used together, forming a double seal with one squeeze, or were just a convenient way of packaging two seals. Most of those that come on the market have been broken apart and are found separately. Intact pairs seem very rare. The hinge at the top is often broken. The complete assembly can be worn suspended by a cord around the neck.
Stamp seal 615 Lute shaped and featuring a standing bird, perhaps a pelican, much like seal stamp 557. At the top is an intact bronze hinge pin.
Stamp seal 692 This looks to me like another pair of silphium seeds.
Stamp seal 724 The only reproduction I have knowingly purchased. I had to see what a clamshell seal was like. This was before I found 730, of course. It has all the markings of a Byzantine seal: the chi-rho, the Greek cross, the inscription. I suppose there is somewhere an original of this, but we'll probably never see it.
Stamp seal 725 Bird standing on a branch.
Stamp seal 730 Shows how the halves of a seal were originally attached to a fitting that would allow them to be worn as a single amulet. This one shows a rabbit and a standing bird.
Stamp seal 783 Intact clamshell seal, not as high a quality as 730, but I think also intended to impress a bird, an eagle. Same image on both halves.
Here is an interesting quote from UNESCO regarding the demise of the stamp seal: "This increase in size, together with the fact that frequently one document required several seals, led to the development of the appended seal which ousted the stamp seal in the course of the twelfth century.
Appended seals consist of a piece of wax or metal with an impression on one or both sides, they are fastened to the document by means of a cord or ribbon and their function is to authenticate the text.
Appended metal seals appear to be Byzantine in origin and they wee used by the Pontifical Chancellery from the sixth century at least. Their appearance is attributed to the need to use a substance less fragile than wax and the impossibility of attaching this material (metal) directly to the document."
Single Lead Seals, Conical and Flat
It's not clear to me yet exactly how the Roman conical seal was made. The blanks must have been prefabricated, since unused examples are common, perfectly preserving the hole for the cord. It has been asserted that impressions were made from intaglio signet rings. That can't be true: lead is too hard. Seal impressions were obviously made hot, at or near the melting point of lead. They were not closures, but attached to open documents or packages by a cord running through that hole in the back. Closed documents were sealed with wax, which could be impressed with signet rings or seal stamps.
Seal 568 Constantine !, helmeted and cuirassed
Seal 570 Standing lion
Seal 572 Horse and rider
Seal 576 Sol and Luna
Seal 577 Two caesars in helmets embracing. Note that this is the same motif as on seal box 5199. Pure political propaganda; they were very likely hostile and suspicious.
Seal 578 Soldier and shield
Seal 580 Pegasus right, soldier left
Seal 586 Cavalry rider
Seal 590 Geometric design, looks like a cross inside a square, perhaps even a package tied with cord.
Seal 592 Sol, running, with upraised arm and whip
Seals 593 and 596. Two identical seal impressions on small lead tags. Inscribed COA, LOAIH AND XAIC on three lines. They are most likely distribution vouchers or admission tokens. I suggest that COA refers to Cos, famed for the Coan gossamer fabric, coa vestis, and. that XAIC could be the Egyptian delta city of Sais, at one time the capital of Egypt.
Seal 598 Roman quadriga in full gallop. The rectangular shape for a seal is unusual.
Seal 607 Emperor Diocletian
Seal 644 Person doing something with, to or for a goat
Seal 650 Licinius, ruler of the eastern half of the empire from 308-324. This image shows him as stern, perhaps even mean.
Seal 661 This item was offered as a Roman seal. However, I now believe it to be a post-medieval cloth seal. I have left it on the site anyway as an interesting curiosity, and as a type to be avoided by the collector of Roman seals. It is also an example of misassignment of artifacts by dealers. The design itself is clear but inscrutable: perhaps a flight of birds?
Seal 666 Emperor flanked by captives. He can be identified as an emperor by the radiate crown. This type of crown, crediting him with attributes of the sun god Apollo, appeared sometime around the reign of Caligula. It was not worn much, but appears on coins and seals. See below seal 643 for an example. Image 666c is very odd, a detail from the reverse of the seal, 666b.
Seal 669 Facing busts, nose-to-nose.
Seal 670 Busts of four caesars. The fact that this seal was found in Britain would indicate that it was issued during the first tetrarchy and that Constantius was one of the tetrarchs portrayed. That would date it to near the end of the third century. The rulers were Constantius, Maximian, Galerius and Diocletian. Can't tell which was Constantius here. His portrait is shown at right, but all such images were political, and not necessarily accurate. Several of these seals have turned up recently.
Seal 675 Alleged to be a bust of Licinius
Seal 686 Another bar seal, with inscription
Seal 687 Legionary, identified by the plume on his helmet
Seal 709 Pegasus
Seal 735 Offered as a Byzantine document seal, and the monogram suggests that may be true.
Seal 737 Roman, bust of Honorius (393-395). The pearl diadem as a symbol of imperial authority came into use in the 4th century.
Seal 794 Two figures under a palm tree. They are holding bunches of something, and I think this is a date harvest scene.
Seal 797 Racing scene, showing three contestants
Seal 1073 Very shaggy, unidentified man with a curious crest.
Double Lead Seals
Beginning in the fourth century, the Byzantines made double sided seals with a different design on each side (Wilson). This was done by starting with a cast lead blank with a hole through it. The cord binding the document was threaded into it and the blank was placed between the jaws of an instrument called a bulloterion. This was simply a sturdy pair of tongs in which were mounted the dies. Striking the head impressed the designs in the soft lead and sealed the ends of the cord. (Vikan).
For a detailed analysis of the Byzantine seals in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, see Oikonomides.
Seal 582 The cruciform monogram is motif to be found on some Byzantine seals. It is based on a Greek cross, with initials or small monograms attached to the ends. This seal has two of them.
Seal 591 Priest performing a ceremony with cross in hand. The other side also shows part of a ritual, probably the same one. This seal has clearly been used, and has been very nearly destroyed by removal of the cord.
Seal 594 Obverse: running antelope left. Reverse: cross.
Seal 595 Obverse: eagle Reverse: cross
Seal 599 Obverse: Virgin Mary with medallion of infant Jesus. Reverse: Four lines of Greek text
Seal 600 Obverse: bust of St. George. Reverse: four lines of Greek text
Seal 601 Obverse: standing figure, perhaps soldier holding spear. reverse: 4 lines of Greek text.
Seal 608 I understand the Christian fish symbol, but not the significance of the hand and three circles.
Seal 618 This is a Roman bronze two-sided seal. Don't know quite what to think of it, though. Seals are made of lead or terracotta. Seal stamps have handles and single sided impressing surfaces. Ex Stein. Obverse: horse and rider with lance. Reverse: standing figures.
Seal 619 Obverse: Jesus. Reverse: another figure.
Seal 643 Obverse: emperor in radiate crown. Don't know which one. Reverse: figure in long gown.
Seal 662 Obverse: standing lion. Reverse: unknown figure, looks a little like the back of a person on a swing, but that's absurd.
Seal 676 An oddity. The hole appears to have been cast-in, perhaps to allow wearing as an amulet. The lettering reads in part LEGO, implying that this was a legionary seal.
Seal 733 I think this blank might have been a reject. Not only is it relatively quite heavy at 23 grams, but the hole is so blocked that it could not accept a cord.
It has been asserted that some clay seals were used in seal boxes for protection. Perhaps so, but it seems to me that even so, dried clay would be so brittle that any stress on the cord would cause fracture. The survival of such seals in soil seems very unlikely, since moisture would cause them to become unrecognizable. Clay seals were also used to secure posted packages and papyrus rolls, and in rare cases would accidentally be fired, thus preserving them. However, such items would show traces of their attachment to binding cord. In the absence of such evidence, they must be considered tokens. All the following, with the possible exception of 663, show no such markings. Tokens could be used for event admission, food distribution or gaming markers.
Seal 663 Unknown portrait bust
Seal 671 Elephant. Clay developed crack, either in drying or firing.
Seal 672 Roman, female head in high relief
Seal 702 Running dog with open mouth
Seal 710 Bearded figure holding grain, with two trees
Seal 712 Person under stars
Seal 713 Reclining figure
Seal 714 Male and female facing tree
Seal 715 Isis, wearing the headdress of Hathor, and bearing plant and bag
Seal 716 Group of standing figures
Seal 717 Woman seated on horse?
Seal 718 Bust of bearded man
Seal 719 Thin figure feeding a pair of geese
Seal 720 Dancing female
Seal 721 Figures with horse
Seal 722 Bibesia, balancing an amphora
Seal 723 Head of bearded man
Seal 731 Bust of bearded man. Probably fake, see note for seal 1006
Seal 757 Bust of bearded emperor wearing radiate crown. Alleged to have been found in Roman Egypt
Seal 772 An admission ticket to the chariot races. High fired terracotta, and very nicely done, but I am always suspicious of such gorgeous work having survived the millenia unblemished.
Seal 789 Unidentified male profile. From the Holy Land, alleged 200-100 BCE. Probably fake, see note for seal 1006.
Seal 795 The material of this one is bone, and it doesn't really belong here. I have no separate section for it yet. Perhaps later. It was offered as a pendant seal but probably should be described as a bead seal. Looks pretty much like a dog to me.
Seal 845 A very nice Pegasus in flight
Seal 1006 Bust of unknown bearded male. Close comparison of seals 731, 789 and 1006 shows that they are identical, made from the same stamp seal. I suspect that all three are modern fakes.
Seal 1068 The Roman eagle
I do not know what such seal impressions were used for. Perhaps they were set in metal mountings and used as pendants or amulets. However, it is much more likely that they were used as gaming tokens. See stamp seal 700 for an instrument suitable for making such seals.
Seal 689 Red glass, bust of unknown person.
Seal 763 Clear glass hemisphere, photographed on a black background. Intaglio engraved. the design is clear, but I can't explain it. There is nothing to suggest that it is Roman. It was offered as "Roman, a figure flanked by two Victories". The figure has a strange, flattened profile and wears a tortoise shell helmet! I know of no culture or deity that used such headgear. He is holding hands with two winged figures which in no way resemble classic Victory. They seem to be presenting him with long strings of something. The shape of the piece suggests that it was mounted in metal and used as a pendant. It is quite photogenic and so bizarre that I will keep it, Roman or not. Perhaps, as sometime happens, I will learn more about it later.
Seal 994 Person kneeling left. A bit blurry, but it's there. Presumably a dice game on a floor.
Single Seals, Conical and Flat, Images
Two-Sided Lead Seals, Images
Clay Seals, Images
Glass Seals, Images