A meeting of Archaeology and Genealogy

I have wanted to write this blog post for some time, but sadly time has gotten away from me recently! So, what is this blog post about, I hear you ask? Back in March, I attended the Society of Antiquaries Conference: Seals and the People of Britain. This is obviously not one of the usual genealogical conferences in the calendar, but given my love of the Medieval, it was one I had been anxious to attend. Initially, it was due to be held in 2020, but as we all know, COVID put the brakes on that one. So, the organisers gallantly rallied together to produce an online version over two afternoons in March. I was very pleased to hear this, as I had particularly been interested in Helen Geake’s presentation entitled ‘Women and their Seals’ (yes, that Helen Geake of Time Team fame!). When I received the full programme, there were also other talks that captured my attention- it made it all the more worthwhile!

The Society of Antiquaries: Seals and the People of Britain

There were eight presentations overall, as well as the welcome by President Paul Drury and a brief summing up discussion headed by Fellow of the Society, John Cherry. Also heavily involved was Dr. Elizabeth New (also a Fellow). Those of you who use Latin in genealogy will recognise the similarity between ‘sigillography’ (the study of seals) and ‘sigillum’ which is a word often found at the end of documents to indicate that the signatories provided their seals. As I said, Helen Geake’s presentation was one that I was particularly interested in, and was included in the programme as follows:

  • Seals and the People of Britain: A survey of past work and present questions (Dr. Elizabeth New)
  • Seal matrices recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Rob Webley and Laura Burnett)
  • Women and their seals (Helen Geake)
  • Widows and their seals (Alister Sutherland)
  • Seals and Identity: Scottish Women’s Seals in the Archives (Rachel Davis)
  • New Impressions: a fresh look at sealing practices in Scotland (Ella Paul)
  • Irish Personal Seals (Raghnall Ó Floinn)
  • Personal seals: insights into personal culture (Malcolm Jones)

As you can see from the above list, there was a good range of presentations, covering a wide area of seal related material. The relevance to genealogists may not be obvious, but it should be remembered that seals can contain armorial information just as well as other representations of arms. This is perhaps most relevant for Medieval and Early Modern research, but as the range of talks suggest, seals could potentially be used for research in Scotland, Ireland and for women- they were not just used by English men. There are also some post Medieval seals (catalogued on the website I will discuss next).

The Portable Antiquities Scheme

A particularly interesting source that those researching in England and Wales should bear in mind when looking for seals, is the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). A joint enterprise between the British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), the PAS aims to encourage the recording of archaeological finds found by members of the public. This means that the PAS has a record of many different objects which may also be of use to the genealogist too! As well as seals and seal matrices, the PAS has a record of coins, spearheads, buckles and many more objects from across a wide range of periods in British history. Even if these objects don’t lead to a specific ancestor, they could certainly inform background research (although I doubt that any of us genealogists would really be using anything as far back as the Roman period though).

Searching the database

Searching the PAS database, a search for ‘seal’ (with images available) returns just over 14,000 results! A further 2,000 are added if records without images are included. So, there is certainly enough of a dataset to search. You can also narrow the search by time period and by county as well. I found over 400 results for seals from Somerset. As the finds are those found by members of the public, they are returned to the owner after a record is made. Therefore, the details of each object naturally need to be full, with as much detail as possible. A description of the object is there, including materials used, inscriptions added, weight and size. The broad date of the piece can be found, as well as the date the object was discovered. Some even have specific details of where the object was found.

Using the PAS for research

A couple of the presentations spoke about the PAS and the results of research conducted on seals within the database. An interesting question arose of the equality of sealing practices. In earlier historical periods, it is generally expected that men used seals more than women did, and the extant seals do perhaps show that. But the question of status in those women using seals surprised me. Helen Geake’s research raised the possibility of whether higher status women were using seals quite as much as women lower down the social hierarchy, and other questions of a societal nature. That is perhaps a research topic for another day, but these sorts of findings both cement some assumptions about Medieval women and challenge others. These are things that we should be aware of when researching women further back in time.

Photo by Mélanie These on Unsplash.

Other presentations in the conference

Helen Geake’s research highlighted many different aspects of the PAS seals and I could talk about her findings more, but I would probably be here all day! Instead, I will mention Alister Sutherland’s talk about widows and their seals. This was also of interest in the respect of widowhood being a large and important part of a Medieval woman’s life. His research is very specific to areas in Warwickshire and also somewhat earlier than I have focussed upon in the past, but the findings were interesting nonetheless. From what Alister’s research has found, only a small proportion of the seals of widows actually used ‘widow’ as a social identity. There was more of a link to having been ‘daughter of’ and other such identifications. An important possibility to keep in mind when researching Medieval women and having difficulty identifying their birth family. If a seal survives (and can be identified), then perhaps it might give important clues? Another possibility for this lack of identification which interested me, was the economical consideration that a woman may not necessarily commission a new seal upon widowhood. If she rarely needed it, then why get a new one? It was likely a costly business. To me, this is no different to much human behaviour today (although consumerism might have something to say about that). Why buy something new and potentially costly, when the one you have does the job just fine? Especially when the object is rarely used.

Seals in Scotland and Ireland

For me, the presentations concerning Scottish and Irish sealing practices were not so pertinent as I have no cause to use this in my own particular research. Although Ancestry DNA suggests I have Irish and Scottish ancestry (as well as my English and Welsh), I have not come across a single Scottish or Irish ancestor to date! Perhaps I will be proved wrong in the future… In any case, I can appreciate the importance that the findings of these presentations would have to those researching in Scotland and Ireland. I was also greatly impressed by the speakers and enjoyed their presentations. An organisation worth looking at for those interested in Scottish seals is the Treasure Trove Unit. It seems that their database is not online, but they seem to be similar to the PAS. There are other genealogical sources which deal with matters of Scottish seals and the like, but there is not space to discuss those here.

Seals for social history

The final presentation I wanted to briefly discuss was that of Malcolm Jones, which discussed motifs on personal seals and how seals can also give an insight into the owner’s character. They can also be an indicator of wider societal ideas and trends. Again, whilst not necessarily leading to a specific ancestor, this aspect of seals can help us understand the social history of our ancestors and the world they lived in. Malcolm Jones spoke about pet names being used on seals and a use of play on words. Some seals used images and layouts that spoke of a deeper meaning. There were those with Christian symbols or those used to bring luck, whereas others illustrated some aspect of folklore of the time. All useful devises for trying to understand the mindset of our ancestors.

Final thoughts

This blog post has only scratched the surface of the area of sigillography and I highly recommend looking at some of the resources below and in the rest of the post. I would also go and check out any published work from the speakers named above. It may have been a brief snapshot, but I hope I have been able to share my view that seals can be useful not only to historians and archaeologists, but to genealogists as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the Society of Antiquaries conference and I am so glad and grateful that it was able to go ahead (albeit in a digital format). I will be keeping seals in mind when I research- they are another tool that may yield more clues about that elusive ancestor!

Some further useful websites relating to seals are:

https://www.sigillvm.net/

https://www.imprintseals.org/

Another important source noted by Dr. Elizabeth New, is A Guide to British Medieval Seals by P.D.A. Harvey (check local libraries and online sources).

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