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Identification and Creation
Object Number
Leaf-Shaped Enameled Seal Box Lid
Other Titles
Former Title: Pendant in Palmette Shape
Work Type
1st-3rd century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World
Roman Imperial period
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
Copper alloy
Cast, lost-wax process
3.9 x 1.9 cm (1 9/16 x 3/4 in.)
Technical Details

Technical Observations: The patina of the metal is green and brown. The object has suffered much deterioration and loss of glass inlay. A large lump of copper alloy corrosion has developed in the central area, disfiguring the piece. The loop at the top is broken, and the edges of the piece are worn.

The piece was cast with cloisonné-like dividers on the front surface that delimit the glassy inlays. The smooth back surface was reworked in the metal, and the sides of the loop preserve file marks. A regular pattern of indentations along the top of the piece, which was made in the metal with a punch, simulates a twisted wire. The remaining inlay appears to be blue.

Francesca G. Bewer (submitted 2002)

Formerly in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, no. E-2357.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.
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
This leaf-shaped object was the lid of a seal box with an onion-shaped terminal (1). The exterior surface of the lid is bordered by a raised edge and has distinct areas of decoration separated by a raised circle in the center, perhaps for an inner medallion of enamel or another inset material. Around the center circle, the surviving white enamel is broken up by bands of dark blue. The upper portion of the hinge survives, and the back is smooth and featureless.

Seal boxes are small, often elaborately decorated containers made up of a lid and base joined together by a hinge. Seal boxes were usually circular or leaf-shaped, although square and rhombic boxes also appear. There were three to four small holes in the base of the seal boxes and occasionally one on the lid (2). From the second century CE, the lids frequently bore colored enamel decoration. The Romans used seal boxes to protect the wax or lead seals that they put on documents or other important items prior to transport. When an object was prepared for transport, it would be wrapped in string or twine. The ends of the string would then be put through the seal box, which had a small notch cut into each side to accommodate the string. The string would then be tied and covered with wax or lead, which would then be imprinted with the impression from a signet ring to make a seal. The small box would then protect the seal while the object travelled to show that it had not been tampered with, and the only way to open the object would be to cut the string or break the seal. Seal boxes have often been found at military sites and may have been used more frequently by Roman soldiers than others (3). Use of seal boxes ends in the late third century CE.


1. Compare J. Bagnall Smith, “Votive Objects and Objects of Votive Significance from Great Walsingham,” Britannia 30 (1999): 21-56, esp. 40-47, nos. 45-49, fig. 4; D. Benea, S. Regep-Vlascici, and M. Crînguş, “Emaillierte Fundstücke aus Tibiscum,” in The Antique Bronzes: Typology, Chronology, Authenticity. The Acta of the 16th International Congress of Antique Bronzes, Organised by The Romanian National History Museum, Bucharest, May 26th-31st, 2003, ed. C. Muşeţeanu (Bucharest 2004) 58-65, esp. 63-65, pl. 6.2, 6.6, and 6.8-9; and A. R. Furger, M. Wartmann, and E. Riha, Die römischen Siegelkapseln aus Augusta Raurica, Forschungen in Augst 44 (Augst, 2009) 54-61, color pls. 1-3.

2. For general information about the use, variety, distribution, and dating of seal boxes, see Furger, Wartmann, and Riha 2009 (supra 1).

3. See T. Derks and N. Roymans, “Seal-Boxes and the Spread of Latin Literacy in the Rhine Delta,” in Becoming Roman, Writing Latin? Literacy and Epigraphy in the Roman West, ed. A. E. Cooley, JRA Suppl. 48 (Portsmouth, RI, 2002) 87-135.

Lisa M. Anderson

Subjects and Contexts

Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

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