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Roman seal boxes
Seal matrices

Roman Seal Boxes by Colin J Andrews

Basic construction

There are two basic components to a Roman seal box; a lid, usually decorated, and a base. Often the lids have a slightly recessed underside but some are completely flat.  The base always has a series of circular perforations in it, always between 3 and 5. The bases also have side walls, usually about 5mm high, with two opposed notches or slots which are thought to have facilitated the tying of the seal box to a package. The hinge element consists of two loops on the base and a single loop on the lid which fits between the two loops on the base. An iron or copper alloy pin is then inserted through all three loops forming a simple hinge. Some lids have a very small integrally cast locating pin or spike opposite the hinge element pointing downwards. This is designed to fit into a corresponding socket in the base. The purpose seems to have been to prevent lateral movement of the lid. Once again this is only the most common configuration and differences from it will be discussed. The first example (457) found by Richard Berry shows the two slots and the socket to receive the locating pin at the tip. The complete example below (13683) found by Shotgun Cap Dave shows all the components of a complete seal box including the hinge assembly

Fig 1: UKDFD 457
Fig 1: UKDFD 457
Fig 2: UKDFD 13683
Fig 2: UKDFD 13683
There are four main shape categories.

1.Piriform or leaf shape.

There are three main types within this group. The most common is a long tapering leaf shape. These are always over 40mm in length and always decorated with enamel. This leaf shape decorated with a heart shape enamelled motif is the most common type in Britain and one of the latest, first appearing perhaps in the Antonine period. This complete example (Ref 9284) was found by Tatfinder but there are two other nice examples of this type found by Gilby (11086 [Shown here] & 11088)

Fig 3: UKDFD 9284
Fig 3: UKDFD 9284
Fig 4: UKDFD 11086
Fig 4: UKDFD 11086

The next shape in this group is lamp shaped. These too are fairly large, usually between 30 & 35mm long and are also decorated with enamel. The example on the left (5741) found by Simon law has lost nearly all of its enamel but is otherwise a typical example of this type. The example on the right (457) found by Richard Berry is very similar.

Fig 5: UKDFD 5741
Fig 5: UKDFD 5741
Fig 6: UKDFD 457
Fig 6: UKDFD 457

The final type from this group is rarer and almost certainly the earliest of the three. They are smaller than the other two usually not exceeding 25mm in length and they are rarely enamelled but were nearly always given a white metal coating or ‘tinned’. This example (6508) found by Sharon Edwards has a separately cast phallus riveted to the lid and the rivet can clearly be seen on the underside.

Fig 7:UKDFD 6508
Fig 7:UKDFD 6508
Fig 8: UKDFD 6508
Fig 8: UKDFD 6508

There is another riveted phallus seal box lid in this group (2118) found by EarthRob and it is larger than the type I am describing here. Also note that this example is enamelled, so some later, large leaf shaped boxes have enamelled decoration and a riveted decoration. The way to distinguish between them, even if you only have a base is by the size and shape.

Fig 9: UKDFD 2118
Fig 9: UKDFD 2118

Another type of decoration found in this group of small piriform seal boxes has a series of punched lines forming a curvilinear design. None of this type has yet been reported to the UKDFD. They are particularly interesting because they are probably the earliest seal boxes found in Britain, dating to the Flavian period at the latest.

Fig 10
Fig 10

2. Circular

There are two basic variations amongst circular seal boxes. The first have cells cast into the lid to receive enamel and are fairly large, usually between 30-35mm across. The most common design consists of a design of circles either arranged concentrically or with smaller circles surrounding a larger one in a satellite arrangement. This type is always enamelled. This circular example (4816) found by Colin the Cop has an unusual cross shape design at its centre.

Fig 11: UKDFD 4816

Fig 11: UKDFD 4816

The other type of circular seal box is smaller, usually about 20mm or less across. This type is not usually enamelled but decorated with cast concentric rings, not to receive enamel but to frame some central detail. The well known class of zoomorphic seal boxes with a separately cast creature riveted to the lid fall into this category. A typical example depicting a bird (2643), found by M Mayes is illustrated below.

Fig 12: UKDFD 2643

Fig 12: UKDFD 2643

Often this type of lid is found with a single hole in the centre where the riveted detail has been lost. Some are known with a decorative stud riveted through the central hole and sometimes a dot of coloured enamel. For example see LON-26BF22 on the PAS database. This type was almost always ‘tinned’ or given a white metal coating, traces of which often survive. This type of small circular seal box seems to be comparatively early, generally no later than c AD 125. On zoomorphic seal boxes in Britain see: Brewer,R (2002) ‘Zoomorphic Seal boxes: Usk & the 20th Legion’ in M.Green & P.Webster (Eds) ‘Artefacts and Archaeology’ Cardiff 2002

3. Square/Rectangular.

Once again there are two main types in this group. The most common is a square or rectangular seal box with a central hinge exactly the same as the hinges we have seen so far. They are invariably enamelled.

Fig 13: UKDFD 12436
Fig 13: UKDFD 12436
Fig 14
Fig 14

On the left is an example (12436) found by GrayH with a gorgeous Celtic decoration, a fairly common motif on square and rectangular boxes in Britain, but the hinge element is missing. On the right is a very similar but more complete example of this type.

The second type in this group, of which there are none in the UKDFD database, has a long hinge which runs right along one side. Also the base fits right up inside the lid, a very unusual feature. The most common form of decoration for this type of seal box consists of a series of enamelled stripes, often incorporating complex enamels, where there is more than one colour in a single cell. The photograph on the left shows this type of decoration. On the right the side of this seal box is shown, one end of the long hinge can be seen as well as one of the slots, which in this design have to pierce the sidewalls of both lid and base. On enamel working in LIA and Roman Britain see: Bateson J D (1991) ‘Enamel Working in Iron Age, Roman and Sub-Roman Britain’  BAR 93 Oxford

Fig 15

Fig 15
Fig 16
Fig 16

4. Lozenge or diamond shape.

This is a very common shape and once again there are two main variations. By far the most common is the simple diamond shape.

Fig 17: UKDFD 371

Fig 17: UKDFD 371

This example (371), found by Dean, is very typical, especially the decoration consisting of a grid of tiny lozenge shaped cells filled with enamel. It is, however, very unusual in having the two elements of the hinge on the lid rather than the base. Other designs are also found (7446),(2974),(1286) and (11643)  but this shape is always enamelled whatever the design.

A rare lozenge type seal box is a flattened lozenge, once again they are always enamelled. There are none of this type in the UKDFD database. To see an example follow this link.


There are other shapes which are much rarer, such as the vesica or eye shape. In my database of British seal boxes as a whole these are very rare so it’s very surprising that there are two in this fairly small UKDFD group. On the left is 7969 found by Stubble2 and on the right 13683 found by Shotgun Cap Dave.

Fig 18: UKDFD 7969

Fig 18: UKDFD 7969

Fig 19: UKDFD 13683
Fig 19: UKDFD 13683

Seal box lids often share designs with plate brooches, and this is an area where misidentification can happen, especially with a much abraded piece. The clues I look for are on the underside of the ‘lid’: if there are any features within the perimeter of the lid then it’s probably a brooch because the hinge element of a seal box always sticks out.

What were seal boxes used for?

It is important to establish that currently, no ancient evidence has been found which tells us how these objects were used, the only clues lie in the objects themselves and their archaeological context, and none have as yet been found in secure association with a wooden writing tablet. There is an example in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden of a wooden writing tablet found in Egypt and a seal box apparently found in association with it. However serious doubts have been raised about whether the two items were really discovered together [Derks & Roymans 2002 p90].

A seal box does appear to be designed to protect a wax seal, and this theory is supported by an example excavated at Wroxeter with a beeswax residue still inside. The wax in this example also bears an impression of string on it’s under surface [Bushe-Fox 1916 p27-20].

The main questions to be answered revolve around the circumstances under which they were used. If we accept the document theory; in which particular situations would it have thought appropriate to use one? We know from remains found at Pompeii and Herculaneum that legal documents were sealed in a different way, with a tryptich being used and the seals of witnesses and their signatures occupying the middle tablet [Derks & Roymans 2002 p90]. Communications on papyrus or similar materials such as slivers of wood do not seem to lend themselves to their use either. So we seem to be dealing only with two leafed wooden writing tablets (dyptich), hinged at the centre. But these writing tablets would have been used for a great variety of correspondence and cannot always have required a seal box.

In fact, the ancient literature shows clearly that wax seals did not routinely need protecting:

In Cicero’s third speech against Lucius Sergius Catilina he makes it clear that the first act when opening a sealed letter was to cut the string and implies that a seal box was not involved in the process:

‘Thereupon we showed Cethegus his letter; he agreed that the seal was his and we cut the thread’ (Cicero ‘Against Lucius Sergius Catilina’ 3,4,10)

In all of Pliny’s letters there is only one reference to sealing (10,74) and it’s not a letter being sealed but a ‘small nugget of gold’ which Pliny is sending to Trajan along with the escaped slave to whom it belonged. Pliny writes ‘I have sealed it with my signet ring, the chariot-and-four’. It’s noteworthy that Pliny felt it necessary to describe his seal, which suggests perhaps that he did not usually seal his correspondence with Trajan, at least not with his personal signet ring, but did feel it appropriate to seal this piece of gold; either because of its intrinsic value or status as potential evidence.

Despite these reservations one could easily be forgiven for believing that the question of what seal boxes were used for had been comprehensively answered, but this is far from the case. That they were designed to hold wax seals does seem clear based upon the pioneering work of Bushe-Fox at Wroxeter referred to above.  The important questions concern what types of thing were sealed using seal boxes. The reason that this is so crucial is that recent archaeological literature takes it for granted that they were used exclusively to seal wooden writing tablets. This view has evolved over time; originally the neutral term ‘parcel’ or ‘box’ was used [Bushe-Fox (1916) p27]. An example of how an unambiguous link between seal boxes and writing tablets has become the new orthodoxy is highlighted by the way in which small finds are now catalogued. The earlier system, under which small finds were usually catalogued according to the material from which they were made has now changed to a regime under which finds are organised by function or theme. This method was pioneered by Crummy [1983] in her excellent publication of the small finds from Colchester and does have many advantages. One problem however is that sometimes determining function is a subjective process. Seal boxes are now routinely grouped together with styli under the heading ‘writing equipment’ or ‘objects associated with written communication’. This gives the impression that these artefacts really do belong together and has encouraged extravagant claims to be made about seal boxes providing evidence for literacy. For example Potter and Johns (1992) write ‘probably the most abundant and widespread indication of the presence of written communication are the decorative bronze seal-boxes…’ [Potter and Johns (1992) p156] 

So any doubts concerning purpose have been swept aside and the only debate centres around the rather narrow question about which types of written communication they were affixed to.  It is not appropriate to rehearse all the arguments concerning this question here, but certain basic points need to be emphasised. As discussed above not all documents which were sealed needed a seal box. Furthermore their distribution within the empire suggests that in much of it, such as Italy they are comparatively rare.  For example, no seal boxes appear to have been found in either Pompeii or Herculaneum, which suggests that their use was clearly not a routine part of the letter writing process.

Therefore, if one does accept that they were used exclusively for documents they must have been used only on a specific type of written communication in certain parts of the Roman Empire. Holmes implies that they were used for official communication and should be associated with the Cursus Publicus or official postal service, established by Augustus [Holmes (1995) p391] . Derks has found an association between seal boxes and shrine sites and suggested that they may have sometimes been used to seal personal vows which were written on wooden tablets and then deposited at such sites [Derks T (1998) p226-230 ] . There is also the suggestion that they may have been used largely by the military, especially since they are often found at military sites, both in Britain and on the continent.

Every seal box has certain common features such as the holes in the base and the vertical slots in each side. These were clearly required in order for the seal box to properly fulfil its function, but no-one has yet explained exactly how they were attached to writing tablets, though there have been some courageous and creditable attempts to do so [See for example Bushe-Fox 1916 p28-29].

It might be worth considering the possibility that these artefacts had a range of uses. They may well have been used to seal writing tablets though it must be accepted that there is no evidence, either archaeological or literary which supports this idea. They may equally have had some role in trade, sealing packages etc or even in ritual as described above.

Finally: A problem with my data:

The graph below shows my ‘problem’ pretty clearly. Why is it that Norfolk, and to some extent Suffolk, have so many more seal boxes found in them by metal detectorists than other counties?

Seal boxes found  by metal detectorists by counties

Archaeologists and PAS officers in these counties have suggested the following possible factors:

  1. They have been recording small finds for longer.
  2. They have built up a better relationship with the metal detecting community.
  3. Less urbanised counties.

All of the above are undoubtedly true but I am not convinced they are powerful enough to account for such a disparity. For example Wiltshire is similar to Norfolk in the amount of arable land.  Wiltshire has 2001 Roman finds of all types recorded on PAS, Norfolk has 9714 (as of 15 June 2008). So there is a five to one ratio of all small Roman finds but the ratio of seal boxes on my database is about 25 to 1. One radical theory I am considering is that people in the Roman period went to Norfolk specifically to deposit ‘things’ and that one reason so much more is found there is simply that there is lot more there.

I would be very interested in any feedback on anything I have written; either on seal boxes or on their uneven distribution. If you have any artefacts you think may be part of a seal box I’d love to hear from you. My e.mail address is below.

Colin J Andrews      Dover    15 June 2008

Note: The author is actively researching possible seal box functions, and anyone wishing to use the information contained in this article should cite both the author's name and this web page.


Ancient sources:

Cicero, ‘Against Lucius Sergius Catilina’ 3

Pliny the Younger, ‘The Letters of Pliny the Younger’

Modern works which are useful to the seal box researcher:

Bagnall-Smith, J, (1999)  'Votive Objects and Objects of Votive Significance from Great  Walsingham', Britannia Vol 30 1999, 21-56

Bateson J D, (1991) ‘Enamel Working in Iron Age, Roman and Sub-Roman Britain’  BAR 93 Oxford

Brewer,R, (2002) ‘Zoomorphic Seal boxes: Usk & the 20th Legion’ in M.Green & P.Webster (Eds) ‘Artefacts and Archaeology’ Cardiff 2002

Bushe-Fox J P, (1916) ‘Third Report on the Excavations on the Site of the Roman Town at Wroxeter , Shropshire 1914’ London

Crummy, N, (1983)The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester 1971-9 Colchester Archaeol. Rep. 2

Cunliffe.B, (1971) ‘Excavations at Fishbourne Vol II: The Finds’ The Soicety of Anitiquaries, London.

Derks T,1998 ‘Gods, Temples and Ritual Practices’ Amsterdam University Press

Derks T and Roymans N, 2002  ‘Seal-boxes and the spread of Latin literacy in the Rhine delta’  J.R.A Supplementary Series No. 48  ‘Becoming Roman, Writing Latin? Literacy and Epigraphy in the Roman West’ edited by Alison E. Cooley 2002

Holmes, S, (1995) 'Seal boxes from Roman London', The London Archaeologist 7.15, - 391-395

Potter T.W. &. Johns C, ‘Roman Britain’  p156 British Museum Press 1992

Ward J,(1911)  ‘Roman Britain’  London

Wheeler, R.E.M.,(1943) Maiden Castle, Dorset Res. Rep. Soc. Antiq. Lond. XII


UKDFD Copright 2005
Version 2005.06.13