Ask A Curator: Rectangular Bale Seal

Lead bale seals were used from the 1300s through the 1800s to indicate inspection of goods shipped in bales.  These seals were used by government officials to denote quality control or taxation status, or by private merchants to impart information to local textile producers and traders.  Usually, the bale seals encountered on archeological sites consist of “two connected disks of lead that were bent over the corner of a bolt of cloth…and clamped tight with a device that impressed the lead with various symbols, numerals, and letters.” (Luckenbach and Cox 17)  The seal pictured below is one example of this type…

Lead bale seal from Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by NMSC staff.

Recently at NMSC, we cataloged a more curious rectangular bale seal.  The seal consists of two parts, one with a lug at one end and the other with a hole at one end.  One part is molded – “PEZ”- – “HEPWO”- and the other is molded “17” with a stamped “26” added to complete the date. 

2 parts of rectangular lead bale seal from Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by NMSC staff.

We were thrilled to have such a clear date to assign to this artifact.  Beyond the date, however, we have been unable as of yet to decipher the meaning of the script on this seal. 

We know that bale seals were often marked with cities, dates, company names, and accounting numbers.   In A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, Ivor Noel Hume mentions rectangular seals (which he describes on page 271 as exceptions to the rule) of similar size recovered during excavations in Williamsburg, Virginia.  These seals bore the name “IONAS PENEY” molded in relief and were dated 1728 and 1729. 

We would like to hear from you!  Have you found bale seals during an excavation or within existing museum collections?  Have you seen rectangular seals before?  Can you provide us with any clues as to how to translate the lettering on this seal?  Could it be that there is a link between the “IONAS PENEY” seals and this one from Petersburg?

References:

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Luckenbach, Al and C. Jane Cox.  17th Century Lead Cloth Seals From Anne Arundel County, Maryland.  Maryland Archeology 39:17-26.

Neumann, George C. and Frank J. Kravic.  Collector’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.  Texarkana, Texas:  Skurlock Publishing Company, 1975.

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About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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4 Responses to Ask A Curator: Rectangular Bale Seal

  1. Eric says:

    I’m almost certain that the object shown in the top photo is a silver colonial Spanish cob, and not a bale seal. I have excavated an almost identical example.

  2. Eric is 100% correct. To learn more about lead bale seals visit: http://popular-archaeology.com/author/carol-tedesco

  3. Matthew LeVault says:

    In the 18th C the letters ‘I’ and ‘J’ are often interchangeable. The name on the seal is Jonas. A similar seal is documented in “A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America” by Hume – 2001

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