Rare Medieval Silver Seal Matrix Treasure Inquest In Shrewsbury

By Caroline Lewis | 17 August 2006
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photo of the back and front parts of the oval seal with an inscription surrounding a carved stone

The seal is a rare medieval find. © British Museum

An inquest into the discovery of a medieval silver seal matrix by metal detectorists in Shropshire was heard on August 17 2006. The rare discovery is now likely to be bought by Shrewsbury Museum Service.

The seal matrix, dated to between 1200 and 1350, was discovered in February 2006 by two detectorists on land near Bayston Hill, Shropshire. Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for Shropshire and Hereford, identified it as an exceptional piece.

“This seal matrix is an exceptionally fine find,” said Mr Reavill, “and is important for the county. The Shrewsbury area is well known for its medieval archaeology and this artefact links us today with events in the past.”

photo of the impression made by the seal in red wax

The seal used on wax. © British Museum

The silver seal is oval and made up of three pieces, with a centrally set gemstone in a milky blue colour. The three separate pieces combine to create a central hollow, filled by the gemstone setting.

Dr Martin Henig of the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford, confirmed that the stone is an onyx. The seal’s intaglio features a kneeling satyr holding two pipes, the style of which suggests it predates the rest of the matrix. It is probably from the end of the first century BC, the Augustan phase of Roman art.

A Latin inscription on the front face of the matrix reads +SERVITE·DOMINO·IN TIMORE, translated as ‘Serve the Lord in Fear’. Gem-set seal matrices are a relatively uncommon medieval find, but they often have inscriptions that trace them to a particular owner, unlike this one. The motto may reveal some information about the purchaser or commissioner, though.

The inscription is taken from a psalm, but does not necessarily mean the owner was an especially religious or pious person. Medieval society revolved around the Christian church, so the seal may have been used to portray a persona that was seen favourably.

photo of the gem setting featuring a kneeling figure

The gemstone is thought to be Roman rather than medieval. © British Museum

“It is unfortunate that we will not know who originally owned the seal,” commented Mr Reavill. “However, they were likely to have been relatively rich and important as the workmanship and material used are of the highest quality. The fact that a reused Roman gemstone was set into the seal is also important and it is the first of its kind to be found in Shropshire.”

After the seal has been valued by the Treasure Valuations Committee, Shrewsbury Museum will try to raise funds to acquire it. It is unknown at this stage how much the seal will cost as relatively few seals have gone through the Treasure Act.

To find out more about the Treasure Act, visit the Portable Antiquities Scheme website www.finds.org.uk. Peter Reavill can also explain more about Treasure and identify your finds at one of the regular finds days at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, held on the first Friday of the month between 1pm and 4pm. The next session will be on September 1 2006.

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