fascinating small find: a Roman seal-box from a site in Lexden

Today (25th November), Trust archaeologist Emma Holloway drew a fascinating small find here at the Trust’s HQ. This is the base of a Roman seal-box. We excavated it from a Roman pit on a site in Lexden where we recently completed a fieldwork project (in July 2016). The site produced several other metal finds and small finds as well as Roman pottery fragments. Trust archaeologist Laura Pooley is currently finishing the site report.

The seal-box is made of copper-alloy and it is just 22 mm by 16 mm. It would have been used like a padlock on a leather or fabric packet, pouch or bag containing small valuables or coins or a letter or document in the form of a writing-tablet. A packet would have been tied with sewing-thread, like a modern parcel, and the thread ends would have been knotted inside a seal-box and sealed with wax, which would have been impressed with the patterm of an intaglio by the sender, and the seal-box closed. The recipient would then receive the packet and break the seal-box open, break the wax seal and access the contents or open the document, which is why most seal-boxes are incomplete when excavated. Seal-boxes could also be used as votive offerings, and one complete seal-box has been found containing a Trajanic coin (a denarius), at Wood Burcote in Northamptonshire in 2012. Roman seal-boxes are usually interpreted as relating to written communications, either official or private documents or, perhaps, votive messages or vows. Seal-boxes seem to date to the 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD.

We have dated the pit which produced the base of the seal-box to the mid 1st to early 3rd century AD. The base is walled: it includes an iron pin hinge, and three perforated holes plus a small cutout in each side wall for the thread to pass through. The missing lid was probably also walled. The base is plain and the lid might have been plain, although most seal-boxes had decorative enamelled lids. Seal-boxes could be leaf-shaped, diamond-shaped, oval, circular or square: this example is rectangular. The Trust has excavated seal-boxes on other sites in Colchester, for example, a complete square seal-box from our Balkerne Lane site in 1973-6. Roman London has produced 44 seal-boxes. A seal-box from Wroxeter still shows traces of beeswax and with the impresssion of threads in the wax (see chapter 5 of Roman Britain through its objects, by Iain Ferris, 2012).

The other Roman metal small finds from our site in Lexden are an iron hobnail, a copper-alloy coin (a dupondius) of Trajan which was minted in Rome in AD 114-117, a bent and corroded small strip of iron, and a fragment of lead. The hobnail, the lead and the strip all derive from the same pit as the seal-box, as does a possible spindlewhorl. Several pottery fragments represent a deep, flat-based platter which was locally made, and one of the fragments of which includes two combined stamps. These two stamps are briefly described in a previous item in this blog but they have now been fully reported on by Roman pottery specialist Val Rigby for the site report. The two combined stamps consist of a literate name stamp with a rosette stamp and they are the first example of this type which Trust pottery specialist Steve Benfield has seen: he says that these two combined stamps are very interesting. The literate name stamp provides evidence of literacy in Roman Colchester and the seal-box may also constitute evidence of literacy here.

The images show the exterior of  the base of the seal-box (with the hinge at the top) beside a modern penny; Emma drawing the seal-box; and the drawing; the pit it was excavated from; and the combined stamps. [Image to follow.]