Intaglio seal fob
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This lovely curio was found in St Anne's Wood in 2010. The Portable Antiquities Officer at Bristol City Museum identified it as a Victorian intaglio seal fob. Although the gold gleams like treasure it is actually gilt on brass, and the 'stone' is merely glass. Nevertheless it is a remarkable and intriguing trinket.
The design cut into the glass is a sort of riddle called a rebus - a message composed with pictures taking the place of words - and it has so far proved impossible to read entirely. Take a look at the full image by clicking on the small picture above, and see if you can work it out (we have digitally reversed the photograph so we can read it). Stop reading now if you wish to avoid a spoiler containing our best interpretation.
The stone would have been used to seal an envelope or sheet of folded paper. A blob of molten wax would have been poured over a join in the paper, and the stone would have been pushed carefully into it, printing its message. The special wax cooled quickly into a hard disc, retaining a clear impression of the intalgio, gluing the edges of the paper together.
The words and images form a question that was intended to puzzle the recipient of the note to which the seal was attached: "Who the [devil] [can] this [bee] from". For almost a year, the interpretation of the image of the tankard eluded us, and we are very grateful to Noel Boothroyd for the resolution to this mystery. Tankards were known as canisters (due to their cylindrical shape) - shortened to 'cans' - and this certainly fits with other seals of this period and slightly earlier, where the message was written completely in words.
Did this seal conceal the identity of the author of a sincere message of love - along the lines of a modern Valentine's card? Or was it used simply as a fashionable jest? Traces of red wax remain in the engraving, showing it was used at least once. Archaeology can only tell us so much of the story, the rest is left to our imagination.
Find spot: St Anne's Wood, Brislington. ST 621720
Exhibit contributed by Uri Ben-Avraham
Text written by Ken Taylor, in 2010
Photographer: Jill Ben-Avraham
Acquisition number: 101001a1