Imprint: A forensic and historical investigation of fingerprints on medieval seals and documents

Project: Externally funded research

Project Details


Impressions of seal matrices in disks of wax, deliberately preserved with their parent documents as part of the legal and administrative process of authentication, survive in great numbers in British archives. Since, by the later thirteenth century, seals came to be used by almost all levels of society, the imagery and wording on seals, along with sealing practices and techniques, offer great potential for historical research. In the last few years, and in particular as a consequence of the AHRC-funded Seals in Medieval Wales (SiMeW) and British Academy Seals in a Local Context (SiLC) projects, this potential is increasingly being realised. Importantly, the back of the wax on which seal impressions are found often retains the image of unique hand prints (finger, thumb or palm) but although sometimes commented upon these have, until now, been neglected as a source of information. They do, however, provide direct evidence of those involved in the act of sealing. But whose prints are they?

Imprint, which offers a genuine and mutually beneficial collaboration between History and forensic science, will use a range of methods for hand mark identification, including cutting-edge practice in digital imaging and the analysis of marks using both manual and Automated Fingerprint Identification System techniques. Images of c.1,200-1,500 medieval seals which are still associated with their parent documents will be taken to specifications which satisfy both the needs of historical research and forensic analysis. From an historical perspective, the results will enable an innovative investigation of the practice of sealing in a documentary context, and will allow the project team to consider what the identification of these prints can tell us about how sealing practices may have evolved concurrently with administrative and legal practices. More generally, the project will shed new light on social networks, rituals associated with exchange, and the bureaucracies and protocols of authentication and security in medieval England and Wales.

On the forensics side, the study will provide data which is pertinent to on-going areas of research in Identity Science, providing a significant quantity of material from a period long before existing banks of fingerprint data, and contribute to discussions about the uniqueness of fingerprints and their evidential validity. This research is timely in promoting links between the Humanities and Forensic science, as urged in the UK government Silverman Report on Research and Development in Forensic Science (2011) which notes the value of interdisciplinary research using forensic science, to create project Impact as well as scholarly results. It is also a natural progression from the recent work of SiMeW and SiLC, upon whose expertise we are drawing.

A pilot for the project, using seals from Hereford Cathedral Archive, has demonstrated that the methodology is sound: we recovered usable prints from 37% of the material surveyed, and traditional print recognition techniques revealed that particular individuals do recur.
Effective start/end date01 Jan 201631 Dec 2018


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/M010813/1): £236,618.86


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