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Identification and Creation
Object Number
Key on a Ring
Tools and Equipment
Work Type
5th-12th century
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World
Byzantine period
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
Leaded bronze
Cast, lost-wax process
overall: l. 7.2 cm (2 13/16 in.)
key: 1.5 x 4.3 cm (9/16 x 1 11/16 in.)
band: diam. 3.3 cm (1 5/16 in.)
Technical Details

Chemical Composition: ICP-MS/AAA data from sample, Leaded Bronze:
Cu, 82.53; Sn, 7.67; Pb, 9.17; Zn, 0.192; Fe, 0.02; Ni, 0.03; Ag, 0.07; Sb, 0.1; As, 0.22; Bi, less than 0.025; Co, less than 0.01; Au, less than 0.01; Cd, less than 0.001
J. Riederer

Technical Observations: The patina is a pale brownish green, and the object is intact. The key and ring were made separately by lost-wax casting. The ring was inserted in an opening at the end of the key, which was then hammered slightly closed to secure the ring.

Carol Snow (submitted 2002)

Louise M. and George E. Bates, Camden, ME (by 1971-1992), gift; to the Harvard University Art Museums, 1992.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Louise M. and George E. Bates
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
The band of this ring has a bezel on one side and a narrow bar on the other. The shaft of the separately cast, solid-barrel key was bent around the bar of the ring, allowing the key to swivel. The key is of a type known as a “turning key,” which was inserted into a lock device and then rotated to release a bolt. A properly sized and shaped bit was required to enter the hole of the lock and engage the bolt. The small size of this key indicates that it was probably used to secure a box or small chest (1).

The bezel on the opposite end of the band is incised with an “X” and could have been used as a sealing device. As insurance against petty theft, wax, clay, or another impressionable material could be laid over the seam of the box lid and then stamped with the bezel of the ring. If the seal was disturbed, the owner knew that someone had tampered with the box (2). Among extant Byzantine keys, only those in precious metal possess personalized seals; base metal rings, such as the Harvard example, were mass produced, and their bezels display generic, anonymous motifs (3).

When the ring was slipped over the wearer’s finger, the key twisted around to rest in the palm of the hand. The band of this ring is large, which may indicate that the ring was used by a man. But rings with swivel keys were not necessarily worn; some were instead suspended from chains, in which case the size of the ring has no bearing on the identity of the owner (4).
The Harvard key is decorated on the shaft and band with pairs of incised perpendicular and diagonal lines. Similar decoration is found on keys of comparable shape dating from the fifth to seventh centuries CE, as well as on tenth- to twelfth-century keys from excavations at Corinth (5). Byzantine keys do not demonstrate a clear typological development over the centuries. Therefore, the Harvard piece may date from the fifth to twelfth centuries CE.


1. G. Vikan and J. Nesbitt, Security in Byzantium: Locking, Sealing and Weighing (Washington, DC, 1980) 2-5; and G. Vikan,“Security in Byzanitum: Keys,” Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik 32.3 (1982): 503-11, esp. 503-504.

2. Vikan 1982 (supra 1) 505.

3. Vikan and Nesbitt 1980 (supra 1) 4-5; and Vikan 1982 (supra 1) 503-504 and 509, fig. 3.

4. See Vikan and Nesbitt 1980 (supra 1) front cover; and Vikan 1982 (supra 1) 505 and 510, fig. 6 (a ninth- to eleventh-century set of ring keys suspended from a chain).

5. See F. D. Friedman, ed., Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th centuries A.D., exh. cat., Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, 1989) no. 19; and G. R. Davidson, Corinth 12: Minor Objects (Princeton, 1952) nos. 988-91, pl. 70. For additional Byzantine ring keys, see H. A. Stathatou, Collection Hélène Stathatos: Les objets byzantins et post-byzantins (Limoges, 1957) 106, no. 56, pl. 16; Vikan and Nesbitt 1980 (supra 1) inside back cover; J. Russell, “Byzantine Instrumenta Domestica from Anemurium: The Significance of Context,” in City, Town, and Countryside in the Early Byzantine Era, ed. R. L. Hohlfelder (Boulder, 1982) 133-63, esp. 136 and 154, figs. 2.18-19; J. Waldbaum, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis 8: Metalwork from Sardis (Cambridge, MA, 1983) 75-76, nos. 403-408, pl. 25; R. M. Harrison, Excavations at Saraçhane in Istanbul 1: The Excavations, Structures, Architectural Decoration, Small Finds, Coins, Bones, and Molluscs (Princeton, 1986) 28, no. 336, fig. 333; and D. Papanikola-Bakirtzē, Kathēmerinē zōē sto Vyzantio [Everyday Life in Byzantium], exh. cat., Museum of Byzantine Culture (Athens, 2002) 274-77, nos. 282-88 [in Greek].

Alicia Walker

Subjects and Contexts

Ancient Bronzes

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