Seal boxes are fairly common, attractive, and easily identifiable archaeological finds. A quick search of the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, combined with those held by The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire, reveals 56 examples from Lincolnshire. Small, hinged, copper alloy boxes with holes on the base and often with enamelled decoration on the lid, seal boxes have traditionally been interpreted as writing equipment, used for containing and protecting a wax seal to keep the contents of wooden writing tablets secure. They have therefore been used as evidence for the spread of literacy in Roman Britain. A recent study of seal boxes by Colin Andrews, however, has questioned this traditional wisdom. More of that later, though.
Seal boxes are found in a variety of fairly standard forms. The majority found in Britain are piriform, lozengiform, circular or square.
Piriform seal boxes (the name referring to their shield-like shape) are well represented in Lincolnshire. They are often beautifully (if a little garishly) enamelled, often with a motif of a circle within a heart.
Lozengiform seal boxes are another common type in Lincolnshire, and are equally decorative. The most common decorative scheme is a series of enamelled diamonds, and the box ityself often has small projecting lugs at the corners.
Circular seal boxes are found with a little more variety than the previous two types, and Andrews has determined that this is crucial for dating them. Slightly larger and enamelled forms (Andrews’ ‘C1′) are of later Roman date, whereas small circular boxes with either concentric rings or applied motifs (Andrews’ ‘C2’) are earlier in date.
Finally, square forms, which can feature beautiful Celtic-style decorative patterns and enamelled symmetrical floral motifs. Some simple forms of square seal box are rarer in Britain and generally less decorative than the other types. Andrews dates these to the second half of the 1st Century AD. Only a small number of square seal boxes are currently known from Lincolnshire.
The distribution of the 56 Lincolnshire seal boxes can be seen below. The spread is fairly even throughout the county. A concentration in the south, around Ancaster and Sleaford, can be identified, though as this area is heavily explored by metal detector users, greater numbers of finds are to be expected. Another concentration can be noted at the very north of the county, around Winterton, Dragonby, Winteringham and South Ferriby, an area that may have been a hub of water-based trade and the point where goods crossed the Humber. Generally, the distribution pattern relates to major road routes and settlements, supporting the idea that seal boxes were attached to items which traveled around.
Lincoln has, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced more examples than any other single settlement in the county, though it should be noted that nowhere near the quantity of them have been found as at major towns such as London (79), Colchester (51) and Wroxeter (42). Military sites in the north of England have also produced relatively larger quantities, and Andrews noted an unusually high number of them from Norfolk. The Lincoln finds from the lower enclosure have been found around the walls and gates, and in the upper enclosure only one has been found at the site of the forum, and even then the find was fragmentary and unstratified. The other upper enclosure find, at the Westgate water tower, was a circular seal box of Andrews’ earlier C2 category (images above).
So what were seal boxes used for? As mentioned above, the traditional view is that they were used to secure wooden writing tablets, as shown with the replicas below. The holes in the base of the seal box fastened it to the tablet, wax was poured inside and a seal impression made from a ring. If the string was cut or the seal damaged, the receiver knew the document had been tampered with.
Although this theory works and seal boxes may well have been used in this way, finds from Trier of a seal box being used to seal a leather pouch containing gold aurei, and from Kalkreise of a seal box in association with a money pouch have led Andrews to suggest that the security of valuables may have been the aim rather than just that of messages. Such a reinterpretation and the possibility it opens up for the variety of goods which may have been secured in this manner are of interest for the future interpretation of these fascinating objects.
Another facet of seal boxes is the potential for the decorative lids to have been reused as purely decorative items such as pendants or mounts once the box became broken. More research and careful analysis is required in this area but it’s a great example of the ‘object biography’ approach to studying material culture – the idea that objects have stories to tell beyond that of their primary function.
Andrews, Colin, 2012. Roman seal-boxes in Britain. BAR British Series 567. Archaeopress