Table of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 PAS object type(s) to be used
- 3 Terms to use in the description
- 4 How to read an inscription
- 5 Roman seal matrices
- 6 Early-medieval seal matrices
- 7 Medieval seal matrices
- 8 Post-medieval seal matrices
A seal matrix is used for making an impression on a wax seal, to authenticate a document or to keep it closed. Some specialised matrices may be used for making impressions on lead seals, such as cloth seals (e.g. NFAHG-C241B0).
The earliest seal matrices on the PAS database date from the early-medieval period, but these are rare; most date from the 13th and 14th centuries. After this they slowly declined in use, but were still made in small numbers up to the 19th or even 20th centuries.
PAS object type(s) to be used
All seal matrices should be recorded as SEAL MATRIX. 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 on signet rings, but they can also occasionally be found in brooches (e.g. OXON-2B4EA1) or pendants (e.g. BUC-CE48C1). Similar post-medieval intaglios were used mainly on seal matrices, but they also occur on finger-rings (e.g. SUR-A95AB6). Because of the variety of uses, detached gem or glass intaglios should be recorded as INTAGLIO.
PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used
The vast majority of seal matrices date to the medieval period, but even these have not been formally classified. They can however be divided into several groups, which can be added to the classification field:
- personal (those with names, mainly dating to the 13th century)
- anonymous (those with mottoes, mainly dating to the 14th century)
- official (those with the name of the office rather than the individual), including both ecclesiastical and secular offices
For the sub-classification field, at the moment we are using this to divide the personal seals into men’s and women’s seals (with ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in the field). Occasionally a matrix will be double-sided, with one name on each face, and this is flagged up with ‘double sided’ in the sub-classification field.
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.
The term ‘matrix’ (from the Latin ‘mater’ meaning mother, plural ‘matrices’) implies that the design is cut into the surface; the equivalent in relief is called a ‘patrix’. All seal matrices, therefore, must have the design and inscription recessed into the surface. As most are made individually, the standard method of manufacture is engraving; if the design and/or inscription appear to have been cast or stamped instead of engraved, please note this in the Description field.
How to read an inscription
Because the seal matrix was used to make an impression, the engraving of the inscription was almost always done in mirror-image. To read and interpret a seal matrix it is therefore helpful to get an image of the engraving the right way round. This can be done in Photoshop, or by taking a impression (also called a ‘cast’).
The PAS used to recommend that an impression was made for every seal matrix, and photographed alongside the matrix. The materials used could be Fimo (which needs to be baked to set permanently hard) or in Dass (an air-drying clay, but which is vulnerable to damp).
These days, manipulating images is so easy that a matrix can be reversed to read the central motif and inscription the right way round. In Photoshop, choose the Image tab, then Rotate and Flip Horizontal. In this way the inscription will appear clockwise, the right way round.
Sometimes a very unclear inscription will be easier to read when the flipped image is additionally put into negative. To do this in Photoshop, choose the Filter tab, then Adjustments, then Invert. The altered images should be added to the record as separate images, keeping the unaltered record images together.
Roman seal matrices
Sealings in the Roman world were normally made using signet rings, which are finger-rings with engraved bezels. Normally the bezel would have held a separate carved gem or intaglio, and these are recorded as FINGER RING.
There are a few examples of Roman lead seals which were stamped with rectangular dies (examples here), but we have not yet recorded any matrices. The closest candidate has raised letters, so is a patrix rather than a matrix; it has therefore been recorded as a DIE STAMP (SUR-8620F1).
Early-medieval seal matrices
Early-medieval seal matrices exist, but are exceptionally rare. One of the four known Anglo-Saxon seal matrices (other than signet rings) 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 have a central design and inscription, usually added to the matrix by engraving.
Medieval seal matrices tend to be one of two broad forms – flat, or conical (perhaps hexagonally faceted). Flat seal matrices can be of lead or copper alloy; conical ones can be of copper alloy or silver. Both can be a variety of shapes, but flat ones are most often circular or pointed-oval, and conical matrices most often have circular dies. About a quarter of the silver examples include a re-used Roman intaglio as the central design.
Conical matrices usually have pierced terminals, probably for suspension, and can have an orientation mark on the reverse to show where the top of the design is. Flat matrices usually have a pierced lug on the reverse which fulfils both of these functions.
Seal matrices with personal names are thought to date to the 13th century, and anonymous seal matrices are thought to date to the 14th century.
Occasionally an unfinished, blank seal matrix is found, such as LON-37E577 or SWYOR-3A9A82. Further evidence for manufacture of medieval seal matrices comes from the mould LVPL-35AD66 and the mis-cast matrix LON-476DD1.
How to describe a medieval seal matrix
Descriptions of seal matrices normally follow a standard formula. The overall form comes first (i.e. flat or conical) 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 (normally cast in relief).
For a conical matrix, it will include details of the handle, the terminal, and any orientation mark, which helps to locate the top of the matrix’s design.
If incomplete, say whether the matrix has been deliberately cut (to cancel it) or accidentally broken.
Once everything else has been described, the die comes last.
The central design
Normally we start with the central design (also called the central motif). This can be described as seen 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 right on the matrix, and 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; if you see this, please note it.
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 description of central designs should ideally do two things. One is to fully describe the animals or figures that you can see; the other is to mention them using standardised terminology so that all similar designs will be retrieved in a search. Seal matrices with the same motif can be very different in detail and all must be described individually and precisely, but without the standardised (technical or jargon) term it will be difficult to find parallels and groups.
Examples might be ‘lamb with foot curved to hold a staff with a square flag at the top (Agnus Dei)’ or ‘a pelican in her piety, i.e. a bird in an untidy nest feeding three chicks by pecking at her own breast’.
The Seals in Medieval Wales project classified central designs into types. Although nearly a quarter of the Welsh seals had unusual, individualistic (‘unclassified’) designs, there were 21 designs with ten or more examples in the sample. These were called ‘standard classes’ (McEwan 2016, 29-30, table 1.3).
We are still trying to establish the best way of adding the standard class that a motif fits into to the PAS database record, and hope that we may be able to add detailed advice soon. In the meantime, it would be helpful to add the names of the standard class of design used on a matrix to the Description field. The classes and their order may surprise some of us used to recording matrices, as we don’t have many with ‘text’ or ‘shield’ and we have a lot of others not frequent enough in the Welsh material to make it into the standard classes, such as a hare, a moon and star, or a head on a dish (usually interpretable as John the Baptist).
The names of the 21 standard classes are given below (in bold), with the commonest in the Seals in Medieval Wales sample first.
- text – one or more letters, excluding the ‘Christogram’
- shield – shield or similar, with heraldic or pseudo-heraldic device
- radial – two or more intersecting branches, petals, leaves or lobes
- stylised lily – fleur-de-lis
- bird – any bird, excluding ‘pelican in piety’ and ‘hawk hunting’
- bust – human head, or head and shoulders
- woman holding child – often interpretable as the Virgin Mary and Child
- lion – quadruped with mane and/or bulbous end to a long tail; excluding the ‘lion sleeping’
- armoured man on horseback – full-length depiction
- squirrel – recognisable from the long bushy tail
- merchant mark (what we do if the merchant’s mark is on a shield has yet to be established!)
- pelican in piety – bird perched on nest with chicks, pecking at its own breast
- lamb and staff – this motif is often known as the Agnus Dei or the Lamb and Flag
- lion sleeping – curled-up lion seen from above
- stag head – recognisable from the antlers, often with a cross between
- two heads – a pair of human heads
- crossed hands – a pair of clasped hands
- stag – excluding ‘stag head’
- hawk hunting – bird of prey above another animal
- Christogram – abbreviation of the name of Jesus (ihc, or ihs, etc)
- hare on hound – a hare (with long ears and short tail) astride a dog (with short ears and often a long tail)
The inscription is recorded in two places. In the inscription field, it is transcribed exactly as it appears on the impression (normally clockwise from the top), together with any 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 please don’t add inverted commas around it or a translation. If there are letters in the inscription that you cannot read, add […]. No more is needed here; the place for a full exposition is the Description field.
The second place is in the Description field. Here you can use punctuation; although inverted commas are usually unhelpful, as they can be confused with apostrophes on the object, a full stop at the end may be appropriate. Please add a translation here if you can. In addition, unusual aspects of the inscription may need to be briefly described here, 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.
The language of an anonymous inscription can be French, English or Latin. To help reconstruct or understand an anonymous inscription, Harvey and McGuinness 1996 has a list of mottoes towards the back; there is also a brief list of the commonest mottoes below.
If the inscription starts with an S, it will probably be a personal seal matrix, with a personal name. These are normally in Latin, and the S stands for sigillum (seal). To help read or understand a personal seal matrix, there is a list of common first names (or given names) below.
There are also good resources to be found on line. Perhaps the quickest and easiest is http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~oel/givennames.html; simply type the letters you can see into a search box and see what you get. Alternatively, several resources can be found grouped together at https://www.s-gabriel.org/names/english.shtml and a list of women’s given names can be found at https://www.s-gabriel.org/names/talan/reaney/.
After the first name, there will probably be a surname (also sometimes called a by-name). The most common are patronymics, which begin with FIL’ or F’ (son/daughter of…). There are also place-name surnames, often starting with DE or D’ (of…); and occupation names, often starting with LE (the…). Lastly some other names can be pure nicknames.
For surnames the best source is Reaney and Wilson’s Dictionary of English Surnames (often abbreviated to DES). There are lots of editions of this, and a copy can be cheaply obtained second-hand. Use it to check medieval versions of surnames.
Women’s seal matrices
Somewhere between 20% and 25% of all matrices recorded on the PAS database with readable names are those of women. Please add the word ‘woman’ to the sub-classification field so that we can retrieve all the records together.
Common personal names on seal matrices
The names on seal matrices look different to names we use today firstly because they are in Latin, and secondly because they are in the genitive (also called the possessive). For a name like Henry Richardson, we would write in English ‘Seal of Henry, son of Richard’ but in Latin, Henry is Henricus and Richard is Ricardus, and in the genitive this becomes Henrici and Ricardi. So the inscription becomes ‘Sigillum [seal] Henrici [of Henry] filius [son] Ricardi [of Richard].
Not only that, but all of the words tend to be abbreviated. you can’t look for a familiar name, e.g. Adam or Thomas, or even Henricus, and expect to find it written out like this. The commonest genitive ending for a masculine name is -i, and the commonest ending for a feminine name is -e, but they vary and there are many exceptions. The commonest names and their abbreviations are below.
|Name in Latin in genitive:||Common abbreviations found in inscriptions:||Full Latin name in nominative:||Translates into English as:|
|Male names in –us change to –i in the genitive:|
|Common exceptions to this rule:|
|Male names in –es change to –is in the genitive:|
|Male names in –as change to –e in the genitive:|
|Female names in –a change to –e in the genitive:|
|AVICIE, AMICIE etc||Avicia, Amicia||Avice, Avise, Amise|
|CISSILIE, CECILIE, etc||Cecilia||Cecilia or Cecily|
|Common exceptions to this rule:|
|AGNETIS or ANGNETIS||Agnes||Agnes|
Common mottoes on anonymous seal matrices
Again, a lot of the words used in anonymous mottoes can be abbreviated.
Malcolm Jones has pointed out that inscriptions starting IE SV (I am, in French) benefit from ‘amuletic ambiguity’, because they can also be read as starting JESU, and so invoking the name of Jesus.
|ALAS IE SV PRIS||French||Alas, I am caught|
|ALONE I RIDE I HAVE NO SWAYNE||English||Alone I ride, I have no swain|
|AMVR ME TIENT||French||Love holds me|
|AQVILA IOhIS||Latin||Eagle of John|
|AVE MARIA GRACIA PLENA||Latin||Hail Mary full of grace|
|CAPVT IOhIS||Latin||Head of John|
|CAPVT SERVI DEI||Latin||Head of a servant of God|
|CREDE FERENTI||Latin||Believe (or trust) the bearer|
|CREDE MIChI||Latin||Believe in me|
|CROV ME DAY||English||Crow me day|
|ECCE AGNUS DEI||Latin||Behold the lamb of God|
|EST AMOR ME (around IHC)||Latin||(Jesus) is my love|
|ESTO FIDELIS||Latin||Be faithful|
|FAVCVN IENTIL||French||Gentle-falcon (i.e. peregrine falcon)|
|FRANGE LEGE TEGE||Latin||Break, read, conceal|
|HAYL OWL HAYL or HAIL APE HAIL||English||Hail, owl, hail; or Hail, ape, hail|
|hER IS NO MORE [or LASS] BVT APE OWL ASS||English||Here is no more [or less] than ape, owl, ass|
|HEV OV RVMILOV||English||Possibly ‘heave ho rumbelow’ (a rowing chant)|
|I CRAKE NOTIS||English||I crack nuts|
|I WAS A MAN||English||I was a man|
|IE SV DEGISE||French||I am disguised|
|IE SV PRIVE||French||I am private|
|IE SV SEL D AMI LEL||French||I am a seal of a loyal (or true) friend|
|IE SV SEL D AMVR LEL||French||I am a seal of true love|
|IE VOYS A BOIS||French||I see in the wood|
|IESVS MERCI||French||Thanks be to Jesus|
|LEGE TEGE||Latin||Read, conceal|
|LEL AMI AVET||French||You have a loyal (or true) friend|
|LEL SV||French||I am loyal|
|LEO PVGNAT CVM DRAGONE||Latin||Lion fights with dragon|
|LOVE ME ANDE I YE||English||Love me and I thee (Y = TH)|
|MATER DEI MEMENTO MEI||Latin||Mother of God, remember me|
|MATER DEI MISERERE MEI||Latin||Mother of God, have mercy on me|
|PENSET DE MOY||French||Think of me|
|PRIVE SV||French||I am private|
|PRIVE SV E POY CONV||French||I am private and little known|
|SIGILLVM SECRETI||Latin||Seal of secrets|
|SIGILLVM AMORIS||Latin||Seal of love|
|SIGNVM SALVTIS||Latin||Sign of salvation|
|SIGNVM VERITATIS||Latin||Sign of truth|
|SOHOV ROBIN||English||Soho Robin|
|SOHOV SCVT||English||Soho hare|
|SOHOV SOHOV||English||Soho Soho|
|SVM LEO FORTIS||Latin||I am a strong lion|
|SVM PELICANVS DEI||Latin||I am the pelican of God|
|TENET LA FOY||French||Keep the faith|
|TIMETE DEVM||Latin||Fear the Lord|
|TIMETE DOMINVM||Latin||Fear God|
|WAKE ME NO MAN||English||Wake me no man|
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.