Seal Matrices


A seal matrix is normally used for making an impression on a wax seal, to authenticate a document or to fix it closed. They have a design and inscription, usually added to the matrix by engraving, which can bear the name, arms or monogram of their owner.

Some specialised matrices may be used for making impressions on lead seals, such as cloth seals.

Normally, when recording a seal matrix, an impression (or ‘cast’) is made. This can be in Fimo (which needs to be baked to set permanently hard) or in Dass (an air-drying clay which is vulnerable to damp). Please photograph the cast and add it to the record. Please take an impression whenever possible, even if (particularly if!) the matrix appears unreadable.

Another tip to help in reading the inscription is to ‘flip’ the image in Photoshop. Choose Image, Rotate and Flip Horizontal. In this way the inscription will appear clockwise, the right way round.

 PAS object type(s) to be used

All seal matrices should be recorded as SEAL MATRIX, including post-medieval ‘fob seals’. For finger-rings with an engraved bezel that can be used for sealing (signet rings), use FINGER RING.

Roman engraved glass or gemstones (intaglios) were used mainly, but not exclusively, on finger-rings which were used for sealing; they can also occasionally be used in brooches or pendants (Henig ref needed from library?; Hattatt 2000, fig. 224). Similar post-medieval intaglios were used mainly, but not exclusively, on seal matrices; they also occur in finger-rings. Because of the variety of uses, detached gem or glass intaglios should be recorded as INTAGLIO.  [This is a change; at present, Roman detached intaglios are down as ‘intaglio’ but post-med ones tend to be down as ‘seal matrix’.]

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

Seal matrices have not been classified formally. For the medieval period there is a major division in terms of inscription, between those with names (mainly dating to the 13th century) and those with anonymous mottoes (mainly dating to the 14th century). The anonymous matrices can be difficult to search for as a group, so it is useful to add ‘anonymous’ to the classification field.

If there is heraldry on the matrix, please add ‘heraldic’ to the classification field. [what about if they are both heraldic and anonymous, as is normal? Which one moves? Sub-classification?]

Terms to use in the description

The engraved face is normally called the ‘die’. If it uses an engraved gem, this is called an ‘intaglio’.

The central image can be called the ‘design’, although you will also see the words ‘motif’ and ‘device’ used. We discourage the use of ‘device’ as it is a word with several meanings.

Around the central design there is usually lettering. This may be called the ‘inscription’ or the ‘legend’; we prefer the former, as the latter has more than one meaning.

A seal impression is sometimes called a ‘cast’.

Early-medieval seal matrices

These do exist, but are exceptionally rare. One of the four known Anglo-Saxon seal matrices is are recorded on the PAS database at SF-BE7CB0, and there are also two Frankish-style signet rings, PAS-8709C3 and ESS-E396B1.

Medieval seal matrices

Medieval seal matrices are usually made from lead or copper alloy, but can occasionally be made from silver.

They tend to be one of two broad forms – flat, or with a conical handle (perhaps hexagonally faceted). Flat seal matrices can be a variety of shapes, but those with conical handles normally have circular dies.

Descriptions of seal matrices normally follow a formula. The overall form is first (flat or with conical handle) and then the description of the reverse is completed. For a flat matrix this will include details of any pierced or unpierced lug, raised rib or decoration.

Features on the reverse of a flat seal matrix
Features on the reverse of a flat seal matrix (SUSS-BF0F87) and (YORYM-86DF46)

For a matrix with a conical handle, it will include details of the terminal; also look for an orientation mark towards the edge, which helps to locate the top of the matrix’s design.

Parts of a conical seal matrix
Parts of a conical seal matrix (WAW-C6FCA1 and SWYOR-09A80B)

Once everything else has been described, the die comes last. Normally we start with the central design (also called the central motif). This can be described as on the die itself or on the impression, but if there is a difference you must explain which you are describing (e.g. a lion facing left on the impression). Usually all aspects of the die have been made by punching or engraving, but sometimes the central design has some cast elements.

The description of central designs should concentrate on the animals or figures that you can see, and only secondarily contain a jargon or technical term; e.g. ‘lamb with foot curved to hold a square flag (Agnus Dei)’ or ‘a bird in an untidy nest feeding three chicks by pecking at her own breast (a pelican in her piety)’.  The technical term allows similar motifs to be searched for, but describing what you see allows an individual matrix to be described with more precision. Seal matrices with the same motif can be very different in detail and all must be described individually.

There is often a division between the central design and the inscription, consisting of a plain groove or a beaded line. Please note this down if it is present – and be very certain to note if it is not present, because this may be an indicator of relatively early date.

The inscription is transcribed exactly as it appears on the impression (normally clockwise from the top), together with abbreviation marks, dots between letters, and any initial mark (this is usually a cross on 13th-century matrices and a star or asterisk on 14th-century matrices). Spaces can be added to make it easier to understand, but you don’t need to add inverted commas around it. Please add a translation (in brackets) if you can. The inscription should be copied across to the Inscription field exactly as it appears (with spaces added if necessary) but do not add the translation here.

Unusual aspects of the inscription may need to be briefly described, e.g. if an N is reverse-barred, or if two letters are ligated, or if the lettering is unusually crude, or if the inscription does not start at the top of the matrix. If there is a gap in the inscription, add […] To help reconstruct or understand an inscription, Harvey and McGuinness 1996 has a list of anonymous mottoes towards the back.

If incomplete, say whether the matrix has been deliberately cut (to cancel it) or accidentally broken.

Post-medieval seal matrices

Post-medieval seal matrices are recorded in much the same way as medieval seal matrices. Most importantly, any inscription should be copied across to the Inscription field, even if it only consists of initials in the centre of the die.

If it is thought useful, the term ‘fob seal’ can be used in the Object Description field, but it is not necessary. The term is sometimes used for 18th- to 20th-century matrices with dies of glass or gemstone, and copper-alloy handles which can often be of openwork and sometimes fold flat. A ‘fob’ was originally a small pocket, for a watch or similar; it was also used for the chain holding the watch (short for ‘fob chain’), and this is the sense used by the mda thesaurus.

'Fob' seal matrix of post-medieval date
‘Fob’ seal matrix (LVPL-735D37) of post-medieval date