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The seal as a mark of authenticity is of very great antiquity having been known in the civilisations of the Assyrians and Egyptians as early as 4,000 years BC. There is a good deal of information on seals scattered amongst various learned journals which deal for the most part with the seals of State or those of Knights, Corporate or Religious bodies. Whilst it is possible to find such seals the vast majority that have been found by metal detectors have been of more humble origins belonging to the lower orders of society and it is these finds that we will be examining here.

In this country apart from the Roman period seals do not appear to be used until later-Saxon times and then only in the highest orders of society and still of great rarity. By the 12th century onwards however a change has occurred. With the increasing role of central government in local affairs and the developing use of documents and deeds to prove rights of title etc., the ownership of a personal seal became quite commonplace even amongst the lower classes. Thus a man or woman who possibly could not read or write themselves but held some land or property had the means of putting their mark upon a document to authenticate it. An agreement of Ranulph, Earl of Chester and Lincoln and the men of Freiston and Butterwick in Lincolnshire made between 1217-1232 had the seals of more than 50 of the men appended. These are of the same style as those found and illustrated here.

All the seals shown of this first type are made of lead or a lead-alloy and conform to a fairly standard design. They are in use by the 12th century and are rarely found on documents after the beginning of the 14th century. Although in later times the use of a lead seal matrix is confined to the lower orders this is not necessarily the case in the early period and even a Bishop might have such a seal - eg. the seal of Peter, Bishop of Chester (1075-85AD - Antiquaries Journal 65; 1985). The most common shape for the matrix is the pointed oval (vesica) but the circular form is also used. The earlier seal matrices often have an unpierced tab on the edge as in Cat. no's 1 and 2 but all the vesica shapes have a small pierced lug on the reverse (top) corner. The central design or device shows very little variation with most of those illustrated being based on the fleur-de-lis or geometric variations on that theme. Some matrices have additional details on the reverse as Cat no's. 9 and 10.

Legends are contained around the border and usually start with an initial cross. This cross is mostly set at 12 o'clock in relation to the device with the legend reading (on the matrix) down the left side and up the right. More rarely the legend starts at 6 o'clock as in Cat. no's 3; 7; 12. The lettering on the early examples (before about 1200AD) is in Roman capitals but later examples are more commonly in Lombardic script with the occasional mixture of both styles. Latin is still the language normally used. All the legends illustrated begin with SIGILLVM or contractions of it - SIGIL, SIG or often simply S'. This is Latin for 'The seal of' and its use is standard on personal seals. There then follows the Latin form of the Christian name and occasionally a surname which very often is a place name relating to the owners place of origin. Proper surnames as we know them today were not fully established in the 13th century and many seals merely use the form (as Cat no.6) S' HVGONIS FIL WILLELMI - 'The seal of Hugh son of William.' FILIVS (son) and FILIA (daughter) are both commonly abbreviated to FIL'. Letters with a line or stroke through them or followed by an apostrophe denote that the word has been contracted - a common practice to conserve the limited space available to the engraver.

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