Silver Medieval Seal Featuring Engraved Roman Gem Unearthed in England

The rare artifact depicts war god Mars and Victoria, the mythological personification of victory

Front and back of silver seal discovered in Norfolk
Though the intaglio dates to the days of Roman Britain (43 to 410 A.D.), the silver seal that holds it was likely made in the 13th or 14th century. Norfolk County Council under CC BY 4.0

Last August, an amateur archaeologist using a metal detector hit pay dirt in England when they located a medieval silver seal bearing a Roman-era intaglio, or engraved gem.

As BBC News reports, the unusual find was unearthed in the village of Gayton in Norfolk County, about 100 miles northeast of London. Researchers speculate the silver seal may have been owned by a noble who was unaware it was set with a Roman gem.

“Somebody with this caliber of seal was aristocratic and very high up,” says Helen Geake, a liaison officer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which records archaeological finds made by the British public, to BBC News. “It’s still a mystery who that might have been, but these belonged to really top people—barons, bishops, the top one percent.”

According to the artifact’s PAS listing, the badly burned seal matrix depicts a winged figure, believed to be the war god Mars holding a spear, standing next to Victoria, the goddess of victory. Though the intaglio dates to the days of Roman Britain (43 to 410 A.D.), the silver seal that holds it was likely made in the 13th or 14th century.

“Would people have known that it was Roman—was it kept all those centuries and reset in silver, or was it a chance find?” Geake asks BBC News.

She adds, “I think [medieval people] probably would have thought it was from the Mediterranean and the Crusades and not Roman, as in Roman Britain.”

Roman intaglio, or engraved gem, featuring likenesses of Mars and Victoria Norfolk County Council under CC BY 4.0
A similarly unique gold seal matrix found in Norfolk in 2018 Norfolk County Council under CC BY 4.0

Seal matrices peaked in popularity during the 13th and 14th centuries, noted Rebecca Griffiths in a 2020 PAS blog post. Originally wielded only by elite clergy and statesmen, the objects—used to authenticate documents or keep them closed—became increasingly commonplace in medieval England, with merchants and peasants owning them by the end of the 13th century. Most seal matrices were crafted out of copper alloys or lead, but a select few, including the newly discovered specimen, were made of silver or gold.

The Gayton seal’s original artist carved the Roman figures into what is believed to be carnelian, a brown-red gemstone. The intaglio is now gray in color due to damage caused by an unknown fire.

“It’s very peculiar—was it just an accident, was it lost in the countryside and then got in a heath or forest fire?” Geake posits to BBC News. “It’s seen a lot of action.”

Fire also damaged the 1- by 0.72-inch silver seal matrix. Instead of resting flat, the object’s back has an uneven surface, with a hole exposing the reverse of the intaglio. The seal includes what appears to be a Latin inscription around its outer edge, but parts are missing, making it difficult to read.

A similarly unique seal surfaced in Norfolk in 2018 but was only revealed this March, when the British Museum, which oversees the antiquities scheme, released its annual report, as Simon Parkin reported for the Eastern Daily Press at the time. The gold seal matrix dates to between 1250 and 1350 A.D. and boasts a Roman intaglio engraved with an elephant.

Per BBC News, the local Norwich Castle Museum hopes to acquire the seal, which was recently certified as treasure. Current guidelines define treasure very narrowly, but as Caroline Davies wrote for the Guardian in December 2020, the United Kingdom’s government is working to expand these parameters to better protect the country’s national heritage items.

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