Seal matrices were used to make an impression on a wax seal as a means of authenticating a document or, more practically, to keep it closed.
There are over 7,500 seal matrices recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The earliest of these is from the Early-Medieval period (Fig 1) though these are rare. Over 6,000 examples date to the medieval period, particularly the 13th and 14th centuries, after which their use declines.
Though initially limited to the higher ranks of the church and state, the use of seals became more general from the 11th century onward and by the end of the thirteenth century tradesmen and peasants also used them.
Medieval seal matrices are usually made from copper-alloy or lead, but silver examples are also known. They are typically either flat or conical and have a central design and surrounding inscription on the die, usually added by engraving. Flat matrices tend to be circular or pointed-oval (often referred to as vessica-shaped), while conical matrices are usually circular. Many silver examples include a re-used Roman intaglio as the central design.
It is such an example which is the focus of this post.
This silver seal matrix with reused Roman intaglio was reported as potential Treasure in 2015 (Fig 2: YORYM-13A179). It was found by a metal detectorist in Markington, North Yorkshire.
The matrix itself is of 13th – 14th century date while the intaglio dates from the second to third centuries AD.
The intaglio is made of a red stone, possibly agate, jasper or carnelian, and is engraved with a winged Victory facing a seated male figure with a cockerel at his feet. This is likely to represent a winged messenger saluting the god Jupiter. The surrounding legend + SECRETI NVNCIVS means ‘Secret Messenger’ suggesting the matrix was made to fit with the intaglio’s design and that whoever made the seal understood the meaning of the intaglio.
Ancient gems were commonly reused in personal seal matrices throughout the Medieval period, and were often employed as privy or counter-seals by officials. Se below for three examples of medieval seal matrices with reused Roman intaglio.
It is unclear exactly how Roman intaglios came to be reused in such quantities, although it is possible that they were found locally by peasants working the land and passed to their lords. It is equally possible that they were imported specifically. The way in which intaglios were viewed and interpreted by medieval people shows the continuing impact of one civilisation on another.
Downes, A, and Griffiths. R. (2017) 50 Finds From Yorkshire : Objects From the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.
Geake, H. (2016) Finds Recording Guide: Seal Matrices; https://finds.org.uk/counties/findsrecordingguides/seal-matrices/ (accessed 03/04/2020)
Harvey, P.D.A. and McGuinness, A. (1996) A Guide to British Medieval Seals. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.