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Seal boxes



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Ancient seal boxes, what about them?

What is this strange object? A pendant representing a loved one ?

Not at all! Even if they might be the same size, this object is what we call a seal box. This type of artefact, quite rare, is sparsely studied. The archaeologists classify them as instrumentum, in other words “small furniture”.

What is it made of ? A box, a decorated lid and hinges make a seal box!

What is it made for ? The seal boxes are used to hold and secure wax seals used to seal documents in order to guarantee their confidentiality (and authenticity). They were mainly used for messages written on wooden tablets coated with wax, but could also secure purses (such a use was suggested for findings in Kalkriese and Trier (Germany)).

How does it work? Once the document tied, the binding link is placed in the box and then covered with liquid wax. It is then sealed with a intaglio ring or a metal relief. The wax is then imprinted with the ring’s decor. With the box’s size (between 2 and 3 cm long), the ring had to be quite small if it had to be inserted in the wax filled box.

As you can see on the image, the bottom of the box has three small holes, probably for the wax to be able to overflow a little for a better grip of the box to the medium, or even to let through other binding links for a more solid grip to the document.

How do we know? Archaeologists can understand how these boxes work by studying their manufacturing process and/or by finding traces of wax and/or binding links still preserved inside some of them.

The little plus: Different methods of sealing exist in Roman times. Clay seals, a tradition that dates back, are used to seal documents often written on papyrus or parchment. Instead of pressing the ring in wax, it is pressed on a clay drop, thus sealing the document. The rings have various designs. For that matter, the design was sometimes described in the document to prove the letter hadn’t been opened.

When and where? These seal boxes were used from the end of the Republican era to the Imperial era (until more or less the 3rd century AD). The first boxes were made out of bone or copper alloy (bronze, etc.), but later metal became the preferred material.

These artefacts are mainly found in the North, North-East and North-West parts of the Roman world. A hypothesis, put forth by Alex R. Furger, suggests that the use of these objects is linked to the choice of the writing surface according to the climate zone. Thus, wax seals would be used in the more humid and cold areas, where one would write on wax filled tablets, and clay seals in the more warm areas, where papyrus is preferred…

And in Nyon? Four seal boxes were found in the Colonia Iulia Equestris, during various archaeological digs throughout the city. Except for one of them, all of them are complete (with the hinges that allow the box to open) and rather well preserved. On some of them, an enamel décor is visible on the ornate side of the lid (outer side). The green colour of these objects is due to the oxidation of the material because of its environment. They have been staying underground for almost 2000 years!

The oldest discovery dates back to 1907, at the priory of Nyon (Inv. MRN/621). The bronze and enamel box is complete and can be opened and closed. It belongs to the type we call drop shaped and has a geometric décor. Another box (Inv. MRN/12911-05) of the same shape, was discovered near the lake, during the archaeological digs of “La Duche” underground parking led in 2005 by Archeodunum. An erect phallus decorates the lid, a regularly used symbol representing fertility. This symbol is one of the most commonly used on any objects in the Roman world. We can see it in Augusta Raurica for instance, who has the largest corpus of these seal boxes (138 roman seal boxes!).

Finally, two other seal boxes were found in 1996, during the archaeological digs of the amphitheatre. These are square shaped, unlike the other two drop shaped, and seem to have been used later in time. One of them only has its bottom left (Inv. MRN/14106-172) and the other is complete and has a floral and geometric décor.

The exact use of these boxes is not yet entirely clear and the scientists don’t agree on their interpretation. Some identify them as objects solely used in military context, because of their location when they were discovered. But not all of them were discovered in military context: seal boxes were found in urban centres, temples and even graves. A number of interpretations is thus possible. A more significant research on these objects might give us answers to these questions. 

Mila Musy
Guide and auxiliary at the Roman Museum of Nyon, archaeology graduate
 
 

Something to read:

  • Thomas Boucher, Michel Feugère, « Les boîtes à sceau romaines du Musée de Montagnac (Hérault, F) », Instrumentum : bulletin du groupe de travail européen sur l'artisanat et les productions manufacturées dans l'Antiquité, 2009, p. 9-12.

  • Alex R. Furger, Maya Wartmann, Emilie Riha, Die römischen Siegelkapseln aus Augusta Raurica ,  Augusta Raurica, Augst, 2009. 

  • Collectif, Musée romain de Nyon Colonia Iulia Equestris, un site, un musée, Infolio, Gollion, 2019.

Data sheets:

Seal box, drop                            Seal box, square

For children

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