Our Collection Care department is giving a new lease of life to a set of 19th and 20th century moulds of seals. This collection of over 6,500 moulds includes depictions of heraldry, weapons and armour, buildings, fashion, landscape, plants and animals. The moulds are taken from seals held at The National Archives: the original seals date from 1085 to 1953. Their imagery will soon be accessible for the first time through The National Archives’ catalogue, Discovery.
I spoke to preventive conservation assistant Amy Sampson and two members of her volunteer team, Janet Morrow and James Pestell, to find out about this work in progress and what they most enjoy about it.
Digitising things is not typically what I do. My everyday work is about preventing damage to the collection: monitoring for pests, making sure the environment in our repositories stays cool and dry, and providing document handling training. I was aware of our collection of 6,500 seal moulds, made from plaster and silicone rubber, but it hadn’t been used for some time – and there seemed to be so little information available about what it contained that I was concerned about its future.
I support the volunteers in scanning, data input and in researching the moulds, working closely with an historian and expert in digital preservation. Between us, we make sure all the information recorded about the moulds is accurate, and that the images are ready to be uploaded to Discovery.
There are lots of things I find really exciting about this project: I’ve learnt more about seals, sealing practices and imagery than I expected to. I can now identify seal types – ecclesiastical seals, for example are vesical-shaped rather than round. I’ve also become more familiar with the signs and symbols used on heraldic seals, including a Fess – two horizontal lines drawn above and below the center of the shield – and a Checky – several rows of squares of two alternating tinctures.
As a keen family historian who’s spent many hours poring over online transcriptions and indexes, I was aware that many of the record descriptions I was relying on were produced by volunteers. I felt the need to do my bit and put something back into the archive community and, as I was already visiting The National Archives for my own genealogy research, I decided to volunteer. I come in for a day a week to help scan the seal moulds on a flatbed scanner and manipulate the resulting images in Photoshop to make them clear and readable.
Sometimes the background information for the seal moulds needs checking and I love it when occasionally we get to handle – with training! – original parchment documents with seals attached, or when we do detective work in old printed catalogues to establish exactly what date the seal is from and who it belonged to. I’m particularly touched when we see an original seal which has the seal-maker’s fingerprint in the wax: it’s an extraordinary human connection to a person from the distant past.
I have a professional background in communications in the broadcasting industry – nothing at all to do with archives or history – although I do enjoy the visual arts, and for me the seals are like miniature works of art.
I was introduced to the project last year. I had some spare time that I wanted to fill productively and this seemed like a good fit with my interests in culture and history. I’ve learned a lot about Photoshop, taxonomy, heraldic language, medieval monastic hierarchies… well, you just never know when that’s going to be useful in life! Knowing that the results of our work are available online worldwide for all to explore and study, whether you’re a casual browser or a serious scholar, is amazing. Digitising this extraordinary collection feels as if we’re reanimating the past.
I’m one of a team of volunteers. I come in once a week and add information about the seal moulds to a spreadsheet: the date of the seal, the document it was attached to, its size and colour. This information will appear with the image of the mould in The National Archives’ catalogue. Sometimes this involves some fairly detailed research: I might need to check one of the volumes of ‘A Descriptive Calendar of Ancient Deeds’ held in The National Archives reading rooms to find a date or who the seal might have belonged to; at other times I need to check the original documents to find out what colour the seal was.
I’m a marketing and communications consultant with a background in broadcasting, higher education, the public sector and the performing arts. I have never been involved with a project like this before so it’s a great new experience for me.