Keep it secret, keep it safe – Roman seal boxes

One of my favourite Roman objects is seal boxes. Colin Andrews (2012) research demonstrated that these boxes were more likely to seal up bags rather than writing tablets, as was previously thought.

There are a couple of examples from Berkshire. The first is the top of a lozenge shaped box. The top is decorated with 5 rows of diagonal lozenges resulting in 25 recessed cells, all of which would have been filled with enamel; a number of cells still retain enamel, now turquoise in colour but probably a darker blue originally. The hinge lugs are retained, and there are two small knops projecting from either side of the lid

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0BERK-2698F3

The second is the base of a round box. This base has three holes in the bottom to be stitched and then tied to a bag.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0BERK-297221 

This method of attachment is demonstrated in this replica I designed and following Colin Andrews interpretation.

First the base of the box is sewn to the bag through the holes. Next a piece of string is placed around the bag, then fed through two of the holes and placed in two notches in the side of the seal box base.

Authors own

Lastly the string is wrapped around the back and tied in a knot.

This is when wax is melted into the box and the impression of an intaglio from a ring is stamped into the wax.

Authors own

The only way to now get to the contents is to cut the string. The idea of the seal is to stop tampering on route to the destination.

Authors own

The Roman ring with the eagle intaglio recently acquired by West Berkshire museum is the kind of ring that could have been used to create an image in the wax. This way the person receiving the package would have been able to identify the sender.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0BERK-375356 

Seal boxes come in a range of shapes with different decorations. You can find out more about them by searching for them on the database, reading our finds recording guide and Colin Andrews BAR publication. Andrews suggests that many of the designs hold apotropaic powers intended to stop people breaking the seal to steal the contents. These can be in the form of the evil eye, represented as rings, phallic symbols, bright colours or even the image of the Emperor. Whether or not the perceived fear of these images was real or if this was the intention, as many could had other symbolic meanings, the intention was clearly to keep the contents safe before it was opened by the correct recipient.

Authors own


Andrews, C. 2012. Seal Boxes in Roman Britain. BAR British Series 567. Archaeopress: Oxford