One of our latest finds on Micklegate has got us whirring with excitement!
Signed, Sealed & Delivered
Writing has been a form of communication for thousands of years in many different languages across the world. We are all familiar with the concept of sending and receiving letters as a way of sharing mementos with distant friends or relatives, although these days we tend to rely on digital technologies to send updates to our nearest and dearest.
But how did the Romans do it?
Introducing Intaglio Stones
An Intaglio stone is a semi-precious gemstone (such as Carnelian) which would have been etched with an emblem customised to the owner. The imagery depicted in the stone was usually one of great importance and self expression, commonly displaying a Roman god or goddess (Henig, 2011, p. 7), which could be identifiable to the individual or their family. The stone would have been set into a wearable piece of jewellery, such as a ring, so that the wearer could carry it around with them at all times.
Not only did these gems serve as decorative status pieces, but they also had a particularly practical purpose; embossing wax seals. Before sticky gum on envelopes was invented, letters would have been enclosed inside protective material and sealed with a wax stamp to keep its contents safe. The intaglio’s decorative design allowed the recipient to identify who the sender of the letter was before opening it.
Roman Sewer Excavation 1972
In 1972 York Archaeological Trust uncovered numerous intaglio stones when excavating a Roman Sewer at 4-6 Church Street.
As pictured below, you can see that some of the gemstones portray immortal beings.
Photographs from left to right: Roman Goddess Minerva, Roman God Mars, Cupid and representations of the moon and stars.
Photographs taken by Mike Andrews, YAT Photographer
During the excavation process on Micklegate one of our Senior Project Archaeologists spotted a tiny, slightly glowing, red object in a “Clay Dump”. With a bit of clean he soon realised that he had found something quite special!
Unfortunately this intaglio stone did not feature any engraved imagery. This could mean that this stone was in the preparation process for carving, but either got lost or discarded by the creator.
Henig, M. 2011. “Sealed In Stone” in Intaglios from York, Yorkshire Archaeology Today. No. 20.