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Examining Lead Seals and their Fascinating History



While on your journeys out metal detecting you may have found a few old lead seals. Lead seals have been in use for a very long amount of time. Scholars suggest that the use of lead seals dates back to Roman times. However, usage of lead seals really seemed to peak during the 17th and 18th century. These small lead discs were affixed to goods for the purpose of communicating information. They generally range in size from 5 cm to 7 mm. The size of lead seals varies depending on their intended purpose. Research shows that lead seals were used on bales, bags, textiles, and documents. Document lead seals were used more during Medieval times. The use of lead document seals after the 15th Century is quite rare, but historians believe to have found a few known examples. Some lead seals provide information regarding the good's place of origin, the manufacture, the quality of an item, the size, and or the circulation and taxation of the item. Their purpose is a subject of debate between historians due to the fact that there are a great many different types of lead seals with varied functions. I have learned that lead seals are deceptively simple and surprisingly quite complex. This article discusses the most common kinds of lead seals that we find here in the United States. All of the lead seals pictured above, in the cover photo, were dug by Doug Bowden.


Lead seals are often referred to by many as bale seals. During the 17th and 18th century, goods were frequently shipped in bales, chests, or barrels. These bales can be best described as cloth coated bundles that were sewn closed with ropes. For a long amount of time, many archaeologists in the US believed that the lead seals, found at various colonial sites, were strictly used to mark bale's of goods, hence the name bale seals. Very limited in depth research on lead seals has been conducted over the years which I'm sure is the attributing factor to why you often hear cloth seals or other types of lead seals referred to frequently as bale seals. In preparation to write this article, I read every reputable documented source of information on lead seals that I could get my hands on. I also read a lot of the not so reputable sources, as well, just so I could see what they had to say. There really is not a whole lot of detailed information out there and very, very few sources of information identify and explain the differences between the different types of lead seals that exist. Some of the lead seals we find metal detecting are indeed bale seals. There is evidence to support this. They would have been attached to bales of fur or bales of other trade goods, most commonly textiles. They most likely would have been attached to the bale after it was purchased and packaged for shipping and prior to actually leaving its country of origin. Bale seals that we find here in the US most likely originated from England, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Russia, or other European countries. Some historians have pointed out that the use of lead seals on bales of goods is utterly redundant and rather pointless since most bales were often already marked with painted symbols.


In addition to bale seals, we can also find bag seals here in the States. Bag seals were crimped onto bags, sacks or pouches of goods, most commonly textiles. They were also used on other items such as pouches of tobacco and bags of salt as well. Most bag seals found in the United States seem to originate from European countries and they most likely were attached to the bag prior to leaving their country of origin. The lead seal pictured below was found by Dale Long. We believe that it may be a German phosphate factory bag seal.



Here is another example of what appears to be a possible bag seal. This one was found in England by Roland Ozols.


Recent research shows that the great majority of lead seals that we find at colonial sites here in the United States are cloth seals. It is believed that the primary purpose of cloth seals was to mark that the piece was the correct quality and appropriate size. Cloth seals often have the marks of weavers, dyers, guilds, or merchants who handled the piece. Cloth was often marked with stitched marks as well. If a piece of cloth was found to be the incorrect quality or dimensions these seals allowed for law enforcement officials to to identify the accountable parties and fine them. The lead cloth seals found, in colonial settlements, here in the US seem to all originate from European countries. Cloth seals attached to the outside corner section of individual bolts of cloth. They most likely were attached to the cloth prior to it being shipped. It's been noted that it was often difficult and time consuming to remove these seals from the cloth. A lot of cloth seals have been found with the cloth still attached suggesting that removal of the seals was a tedious process and that the seals were probably frequently just cut around and out of the piece. Below is a wonderful example of a cloth worker's personal seal that was found by Manny Birittieri.


The bale, bag, and cloth seals that we find here in the US can be divided into two general categories, fiscal seals and commercial seals. Fiscal lead seals from European countries were used to mark and show that taxes had been paid on those goods. It was especially important to identify that taxes had been paid for goods that were leaving or entering the country. Commercial lead seals are associated with the production of goods and were used by inspection offices or those who directly handled the material such as dyers, weavers, or merchants to signify that the item met quality control inspection standards. It is important to note that multiple lead seals may have been attached to the same item. When examining the lead seals that we find, it can often be rather difficult to discern which of these two categories they fall into exactly.


Lead seals can also be categorized by how they were affixed to an item or their attachment style. The most common attachment style for cloth, bale and bag lead seals is composed of two disks joined by a connecting strip. One of the disks has a loop or hole in the center of it and the other disk has a pointed shaped knob. This style lead seal was frequently used on cloth or other textiles. In order to affix this type of seal, the connecting strip would be bent and the knob would be forced through the weave, presumably after a small hole was already made in the piece of cloth. The knob disk would then be aligned with the holed disk and be hammered shut. This style seal was frequently used on textiles. It was also used on bales or bags. Some of these styled lead seals had 4 disks. Archaeologists have even found examples of this style lead seal with 8 disks. The illustrations pictured below show what this type of attachment style looks like prior to it being sealed.

The John & Jeramiah Naylor & Co. cloth seal pictured below was dug by Donnie Bailey and is an excellent example of the knob loop attachment style. It is still connected together. The lead seal Donnie found is from Wakefield England. Archaeologists have dated it to be circa 1775. The scratched numbers on it are believed to refer to a particular order number 9980 and the length of finished cloth, 70 1/2 yards.



Dave Wise dug the lead seal pictured below. It is also a John & Jeramiah Naylor & Co. cloth seal from Wakefield England. It also has a knob and loop attachment style. Dave's is a single disk and is great because you can see what the loop or holed disk side looks like.


The lead cloth seal pictured below was found by Manny Birittieri and it is a single, holed or looped disk as well. It is marked with the letters GR.



Another common style of lead seals is a single disk with a long flange or strip. The flange or strip would have been bent backwards onto the disk and attached by means of a hole in the plate or by being pressed onto the disk. Some research suggests that these seals may have also been stitched onto the cloth. This style seal is small in size and they often wound up getting broken quite frequently. There is an illustration below that shows what this style of seal looks like.


Tunnel seals are also another common style of lead seals. They are one piece seals with two faces. Kind of like a blank coin but thicker. They have 1 or 2 tunnels running through them. These seals are attached to an item by a wire that runs through one tunnel, around an item and then back through the other tunnel. They are then sealed shut with a hammer. When hammered the tunnels collapse and seal the cord. This style seal is sometimes found on bales of goods. There is an illustration of it below.

In order to truly understand the marks and symbols on these various lead seals and accurately identify their type, purpose or function, and country of origin, one really needs to have a thorough in depth knowledge of heraldic conventions, be well versed and familiar with motifs, crests, and symbols, and have extensive knowledge of the offices and professions that used these seals. A great many lead seals just can't be identified without training in Sigillography. To make the identification process even more challenging, the lead seals that we find are often times damaged, separated, fragmented, and or illegible. Making it extremely difficult to examine the lettering and motifs or symbols.



The three lead seals pictured above were found by Mike Hubbard. I believe that all three most likely are from somewhere over in Europe and traveled here to the United States on textiles, bags, or possibly bales. The two seals pictured below were dug by John Kotwas. The one on the left is marked with number 80 and I'm totally just guessing but I think it may be a railroad seal. The seal pictured on the right appears to say American Oil Company. I believe both of John's seals originated from here in the United States.



Each lead seal was used only just one time. Once their purpose had been fulfilled and their job was complete, they were frequently discarded or disposed of. Historians believe that most lead seals were removed from the item only after it had reached its final shipping destination. Some lead seals may have been removed and discarded once the items arrived to the states but prior to the items actually reaching their final destination. It's deduced that packages may have needed to be opened and then repackaged in order to better facilitate transport. I did read though that once the seals were removed from textiles that the piece could no longer be legally sold without proof of both inspection and tax payment. So cloth seals specifically may have not been discarded until they reached their purchaser directly. Cloth, bale, and bag seals, specifically cloth seals, are frequently found at old sites related to the Fur trade, colonial habitation sites, posts or other trade hubs known for clothing production, and on shipwrecks with trade related cargo. The lead seal pictured below was found by Gino DiCarlo. It appears to say London on the front and has some numbers or letters engraved on the back.



There is some research to indicate that some lead seals were melted down and reused for various different purposes after they served their original function. During the 17th and 18th century, pretty much all types of metal were considered valuable. We're also talking about a time period where folks would frequently find alternate purposes for items or ways to re purpose something rather than just simply discarding it as trash. Some historians suggest that some lead seals may have been melted down to make musket balls or Rupert shot. I guess there have been multiple lead seals found at sites that are known areas for producing Rupert shot. Lead is a soft metal that can be easily molded, simply through the use of applied pressure. It can also be effortlessly cut into with just a knife. Lead seals could have been easily fashioned into fishing weights or coat weights.


When out metal detecting you might have also dug up a few lead railroad seals as well. Railroad seals really fall into their own separate category all together for several reasons. Unlike the other lead seals we find, railroad seals were produced here in the United States. Their intended purpose is somewhat different from those of bale, bag, or cloth seals. Railroad seals were used to well literally seal cargo and freight car doors. Their purpose essentially was to serve as visible proof that cargo or the freight boxcars had not been tampered with while in route. The railroad companies didn't want to be liable if the cargo they were transporting went missing. Railroad seals were designed to be used just one time. Upon delivery they were cut or torn off. Railroad companies used a handheld tool that pressed the lead blanks into a seal that could hopefully not be tampered with. Railroad seals are generally easier to identify than bale, bag, or cloth seals. They are often stamped with the names of the railroad company, initials, or numbers. The lead seal pictured below is of a NYC railroad seal that was dug by Jill Farley- Terry.

Below is a picture of another lead seal that was dug by Jill Farley-Terry. It appears to have the letters BX on it. I'm thinking it may also be a railroad seal.


Lead seals are still used today. They are often unmarked. You can find them in use on water meters, taxi meters, ammunition cans, hoppers, and drums. They look slightly different in style from the older lead seals and their purpose is more for security or to prevent tampering of the item, rather than to provide information. I hope you enjoyed reading this week's blog. Below are a couple more pictures of lead seals that were found by Andy DelliVeneri.




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