Exploring Medieval Seals Project - Aberystwyth University (Department of History and Welsh History)

This title encompasses two projects funded by the AHRC 2009-2014. The first was a three-year research project based in the department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University as part of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS) and in partnership with Bangor University. The second was supported by the AHRC's 'follow-on' scheme to enable the Aberystwyth team to use outreach and engagement activities to share their advanced research and expertise with much wider audiences and in different ways.

Summary

The two projects are:

Seals in Medieval Wales (SiMeW) 2009 to 2012

The research team studied and recorded surviving seal impressions from across Wales and the Marches and dating from the 12th to mid-16th centuries, focusing on 26 archive collections held in nine repositories. This extensive data-gathering, analysis and interpretation has been used to enable new approaches to understanding seals and their use as a basis for the study of medieval society, including politics, economics, religion and identity. The project has culminated in an exhibition curated by the project team and hosted by the National Library of Wales, accompanied by a book intended to present the academic research to a broad audience. A range of other publications, including a major academic book to be published by the University of Wales Press, are in progress.

Exploring outreach through Medieval Seals (ExOMS) 2013 to 2014

This 'follow-on' project was designed to:

  • deliver outreach and public engagement activities to share the expertise of the project team and the knowledge resulting from the research
  • disseminate 'best practice' for describing, documenting and recording seals
  • respond to specific requests for advice on seals

It was aimed at two broad audiences:

  • archivists, curators, conservators, archaeologists and those who record finds through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, all of whom appreciate a fuller understanding of a specialised field for 'professional development'
  • other interest groups and individuals, including local historians, educators and those with commercial interests, who wish to know more about seals, their use in the past and how to interpret and to make best use of the information they offer

Working in partnership

Both projects involved close working relationships between archive repositories and the research team. Informal working partnerships were much more manageable for archive organisations than the formal partnerships as defined by the Research Councils. These contributed greatly to the success of the projects, whether during the process of visiting repositories to examine and record material or in a wider context with two specific organisations:

  • SiMeW entered into cost agreements with the National Library of Wales for a major exhibition and for the digitisation of particular seals to be hosted on the Library's website
  • Planning and delivering ExOMS was facilitated by CyMAL: Museums, Archives and Libraries Wales, where staff were keen to promote the outreach activities across their areas for professional development and community benefit. CyMAL circulated information about opportunities offered by ExOMS, and discussed venues that could facilitate the geographical spread and approaches to evaluation
  • Outreach in other parts of the UK was arranged through and supported by existing links and contacts, for example the active promotion of seals as a historical resource by colleagues at the National Records of Scotland

Challenges

  • The scale of a project which required the examination of large numbers of seals in many repositories, and the volume of data for analysis
  • The logistics of carrying out consistent data gathering: for example, two researchers, linking computers for parallel working, space and booking requirements, multiple document ordering
  • Devising a systematic methodology to establish a standardised recording template
  • Building, maintaining and securing a large relational database
  • Establishing vocabularies for data entry and appropriate thesauri for analysis
  • Dealing with catalogues in different formats and levels, some lacking item-level descriptions or reference to the existence of seals, and out-dated catalogues where reference details have changed within the repository

Opportunities

  • To develop a flexible recording template
  • To access a wider range of relevant material, including previously unknown collections
  • To develop and strengthen links with archive repositories and exchange knowledge with the archivists on subjects of mutual interest
  • To assist with exhibitions and outreach activities
  • To extend the understanding of seals and their past and present usage beyond academic and archival contexts

Responding to the challenges and opportunities

  • Careful advanced planning and developing good communication and mutual understanding between researchers and custodians
  • Allowing sufficient time within planned schedules, and flexibility to accommodate unexpected finds, or alternative plans where material was less than anticipated

Outcomes of the projects

Seals in Medieval Wales

  • Data spanning 26 collections in nine archive repositories
  • 4,943 documents; 3,168 impressions from 2,502 separate seals
  • Exhibition at the National Library of Wales, April-September 2012
  • Book to accompany the exhibition: Seals in Context: Medieval Wales and the Welsh Marches and a planned web publication of selected items with commentary
  • Talks, presentations, conference papers and seminars in many venues, ranging from the National Museum Cardiff and National Library of Wales to the Medieval Academy of America and NYU
  • Journal articles, including the Welsh History Review, 26.3 (2013)
  • Major book under contract to the University of Wales Press

Exploring outreach through Medieval seals

  • Website with a developing range of information and resources
  • Professional development events and workshops for heritage, curatorial, conservation professionals in Edinburgh, Ruthin, Cambridge, Cardiff, Exeter, Dolgellau and London
  • Public talks and presentations
  • Events, including a stand in the education tent at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival (2013)
  • Double page article in the Western Mail's 'favourite objects in Welsh history' series, 4 May 2013 
  • Article for a local or family history magazine

What went well? What didn't go quite as well?

  • Advance planning, discussion with archivists, exchanging knowledge about collections being studied, and understanding archival and conservation issues are all essential for successful work with archives
  • Seals were sometimes missing from archive collections where researchers expected to find seal-bearing documents
  • Access to good digital images of seals (both online and in print) is essential to new research about seals and their use, whether local, national or international. 
  • Concerns and uncertainty about copyright create barriers for researchers 
  • Charges for images required for publication can be prohibitive

Developing the work in the future

  • The ExOMS  project continues until February 2014
  • SIGILLVM, a new international 'special interest' group and forum has been established, in which the Aberystwyth team has played a central role
  • Current interest and expertise in digital humanities offers avenues for shared activities
  • Collaboration with scientific and digital forensics offers further potential for research
  • The need for 'joined-up' research on seals is widely recognised, especially to bring archival and archaeological data-sets together for research and interpretation

Find out more about the project.