Saturday, 5 October 2013

The discovery of rare ‘caged’ seals

U DDLA/36/1 before cleaning
Whilst conserving some documents from the Hull University Archive collections I came across one of special interest among the papers of the Langdale family (Ref U DDLA/36/1). 

It is a settlement document dated the 12th July 1415 which has been written on parchment in iron gall ink and has two small pendant wax seals.  

What is unusual about these seals is that they are known as ‘caged’ seals, and it is very rare to find them. 

‘Caged’ seals are only found on documents created during the 15th century and the ‘cages’ are generally made from twisted reeds or straw, which are inserted into the wax whilst it is still quite soft. We do not know the reason why these seals were made like this, but there are two main theories for their use. 

One is that it is to prevent fragile seals from breaking, and the second is to prevent the surface image from being abraded once the document had been folded up. 

Detail of the seal after cleaning
The second theory is probably the most likely as small wax seals like these are relatively solid and are far less fragile than the larger sized seals, but the surfaces are soft and easily abraded and so far ‘cages’ have only been found on smaller sized seals like these. 

The document itself has been badly damaged by mould causing discolouration and giving much of the document a purple hue colour. There are missing areas and  tears, and at some point some paper has been pasted onto the back of the document to strengthen it, and the adhesive used has also caused considerable damage making the parchment to become stiff and brittle as well as creating further staining. 

The seals were intact, which is very unusual as very often they become damaged and detached and are lost, and all that was required was for them to be cleaned, which shows that this method of protecting the seals has worked, as the document required much more conservation work!

Lydia Stirling
Assistant Conservator