British Museum acquires rare 1,000-year-old seal on third attempt

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British Museum acquires rare 1,000-year-old seal on third attempt
The seal matrix was used to seal documents to ensure authenticity and privacy, and is also thought to have been worn around the neck as a mark of status or as a way of identifying the wearer. Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- The British Museum announced it has acquired a very rare, walrus ivory seal matrix, which was made in England shortly before the invasion of William the Conqueror. Around 1,000 years old, it is one of only five examples known to survive, and this was the last one to have been in private hands. This exquisite piece of craftmanship now belongs to the nation where it can be studied and enjoyed for generations to come.

The seal matrix was used to seal documents to ensure authenticity and privacy, and is also thought to have been worn around the neck as a mark of status or as a way of identifying the wearer. The seal demonstrates how widespread documentary culture was at the time, with seals used for letters, land exchanges, grants from the king, and between monastic houses.

The seal bears the text SIGILLVM WULFRICI. Beyond this seal Wulfric leaves no trace. His seal is all that is known about him but the fact that he owned a seal implies he was of high status. It is very rare for evidence of a named person to survive from the pre-conquest period, and therefore this seal is an immensely valuable window into life in England before society was transformed after the invasion of the Normans. It is also an intricate piece of sculpture, featuring a sword and serpent devouring itself.

This was the last of the five surviving seals to have been in private hands, and it now joins two others that are already in the British Museum collection. This is third time lucky for the Museum to acquire this piece. In 1977 the British Museum was outbid by the British Rail Pension Fund (BRPF), but the BRPF gave the seal to the Museum on long term loan where it went on display for nearly 2 decades, until 1996. That same year, the Museum was outbid at auction again, this time by a private collector. It has since been in private hands for over twenty years until the British Museum managed to purchase it from the owner earlier this year. The sale was made possible thanks to the generosity of John H. Rassweiler, the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts, the Henry Moore Foundation, and British Museum Patrons.

Lloyd de Beer, the Ferguson Curator of Medieval Britain and Europe at the British Museum said: “We’re delighted to have this incredible object join the collection of the British Museum. These things are extremely rare, and it is an object that brings us close to a pivotal moment in history. Within a generation England would be completely transformed, and this object introduces us to one of its people.”

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