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Fig.1 complete barrel padlock with key showing internal springs

Locks of one kind or another have been used from ancient times for whenever man acquires desirable possessions there are those who are prepared to steal them. Barrel padlocks are known from at least the Roman period in this country but as they are generally made of iron they are rarely found in good condition. They are also used in the later Saxon and Viking period but again construction in iron means their survival rate is low. A complete 10th century example has however been found in Coppergate, York and it is on display at the Jorvik Viking Centre.1 It is of a larger size with more complex construction and decoration than these later Medieval examples but in general the operating principle remains the same.

They consist of two quite separate and detachable parts, one a cylindrical barrel with a bar above and the other the bolt. The bolt is a device with barb-springs that catch internally behind a stop within the barrel (fig.2; right) and a socket that engages with the external bar over the cylinder. In this position the lock is closed and requires a key to release the mechanism (fig.1; bottom). The key is inserted through an opening, often 'T' shaped, in the end of the barrel (fig.2; left). Inserting the key compresses the internal barb-springs to a level below the stops in the cylinder and thus allows the bolt to be withdrawn.

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Fig.2 left - opening for key; centre - decoration; right - internal stops

We might surmise that there are three different ways in which these locks could have been used. The first entails passing the bar through a hasp to secure a small chest or casket. The second method would involve a chain being attached to the item and over the bar of the lock before closing. The third less likely method would be a chain from the hole in the bracket (between cylinder and bar) then passing through the item and over the bar. These methods are only supposition - we have no firm proof of how they were originally attached. It may be that the small hole in the bracket was for a chain to keep the key safe until it was required. Examples found with a broken bar, if not caused by damage in the ground, may be the result of the lock being wrenched from its housing, either by forced entry or by the owner losing the key. Individual keys do turn up occasionally (see fig.1) so the latter is a possibility.

Usually when a complete lock is unearthed the bolt is found to be seized within the barrel due to the corrosion of the iron internal springs. However the author has found a complete example in which the bolt could be released because the barb springs remained intact. They had resisted corrosion because they were made of sheet bronze. This had been cut and bent to form the required shape (see fig.1) before being brazed onto the two projections of the bolt. In this way, on insertion of the bolt, a barb on each projection would engage above and below the stop inside the barrel. Traces of solder can still be seen on the bolt where the springs were attached. I have two other incomplete barrel padlock finds that show no obvious signs of internal corrosion so perhaps this method of construction was normal for the period.

Barrel padlocks made of iron, as in earlier times, were also used throughout the later Medieval period2 but the examples illustrated here are all made of copper-alloy. Many of these must be bronze but some examples have the appearance of a grey metal probably suggesting that the bronze was alloyed with lead as an aid to casting. Most of the barrel padlocks illustrated have an octagonal barrel with decoration on the lower three sides only (see fig.2; centre). Barrel padlocks of this type are believed to have been used from at least the 12th century and throughout the later Medieval period. The barrel padlock (fig.3; top right) is the exception with a slightly different form and decoration to all the others. It is also the only example that is corroded internally due to the use of iron springs. The decoration consists of simple incised grooving on both sides of the barrel.

These barrel padlocks have now been found during several archaeological excavations including Beverley, Yorks and many metal detectorists have also recorded them. There are some eight examples listed on The Portable Antiquities Site.3 As a means of security these small locks could never have been very efficient as a deterrent to theft yet they do provide us with tangible evidence of the Medieval locksmith's skill and ingenuity. If you are lucky enough to find a complete example of this type of lock then you will hold in your hands one of the few surviving pieces of working Medieval craftsmanship.

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Fig.3 examples of 4 detector-found barrel padlocks

1.  Ottaway P. - Anglo-Scandinavian Ironwork from 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York 17/6.
2.  Ottaway P. and Rogers, N. - Craft and Industry, and Everyday Life : Finds from Medieval York. The Archaeology of      York 17/15.
     16-22 Coppergate, York - Padlock Finds
3. The Portable Antiquities Scheme


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