22nd May 2016

Imprint is an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project (AHRC), led by Professor Philippa Hoskin, University of Lincoln and Dr Elizabeth New, Aberystwyth University, combining cutting-edge forensic technologies and historical techniques to identify hand and finger prints on medieval wax seals made between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. A team of researchers will be visiting the archives of the Exeter Cathedral, Hereford Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, the National Library of Wales and Westminster Abbey where they will use forensic imaging techniques and computer analysis on wax seals.

Wax seals, made by impressing a seal matrix into warm wax, were an integral part of medieval security and identity management. They were a bit like medieval signature or PIN number, and were intended to signify authenticity and prevent fraud. By the thirteenth century they were being used by men and women at almost all levels in society whenever they needed to record their involvement in legal transaction, like the transfer of land or the giving of gifts. Seal owners chose distinctive images and wording for their personal seals but in addition to these deliberate images individuals left traces of themselves in the forms of hand and finger prints in the warm wax. But who exactly do these prints belong to?

Although the project is unlikely to put many names to prints, it will be able to learn about social networks, and if families and organisations tended to use one particular person to deal with the business of making the seal impression or whether individual people tended to physically make their own seals.
In addition the project has much to offer the forensic speciality of Identity Science by contributing a significant quantity of material from a period long the before existing banks of fingerprint data, and adding to discussions about the uniqueness of fingerprints and their criminal evidential validity.

Members of the project team will be working at Exeter Cathedral's Library and Archives from Monday 23rd May. The seal pictured comes from our Library and Archives and dates from the early 13th century. The document upon which it is set is a grant of land formerly of Walter, archdeacon of Cornwall, extending from near bishop’s gate by his court to city wall, for 103½ silver marks and 6s yearly in rent. There are various provisions including mention of Walter’s great hall, and repair of stone wall which partly supports the chapel of St Radegund.

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