What’s Love Got To Do With It?

When it comes to archeology, what’s love got to do with it?   Well, everything really.  Archeologists aim to understand human behavior through the recovery and analysis of material culture.  Love is a basic and universal human behavior, but assigning such meaning and significance to an inanimate object is tricky business.  So when NMSC archeologists came across an object that literally spells it out, we paused to consider its meaning.


Image Source: Norm Eggert for NMSC

This tiny treasure is a rectangular-shaped intaglio that measures a mere 1 x 1.5 centimeter.  An intaglio is a design engraved or cut into an object-the opposite of a relief.  It is made of a material known as “paste”.  Paste is a glass-based substance used to imitate gemstones.  This material was used extensively from the 1700s to the early 1900s and was a desired material in itself, not just as a cheap replacement for diamonds and gemstones. In this case, the dark purple color is meant to emulate amethyst.  In the center is a pelican on its nest with wings outstretched feeding three young birds.  Upper-case lettering around the bird reads: “LIVE & DIE FOR THOSE WE LOVE”.

This artifact was discovered during the 1958 archeological excavations at the site of the Schuyler House located in Saratoga National Historical Park (SARA).  The original house was home to American General Phillip Schuyler and was burned by the retreating British during the American Revolution, but was quickly rebuilt in November, 1777.  This restored country house is located approximately 8 miles north of the battlefield.  The Schuyler House was visited by many historic figures over the ages, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Marquis de Lafayette and President Franklin Roosevelt.  The intaglio was found by the Schuyler House kitchen, between the foundation of the original kitchen chimney and an earlier brick foundation.

Sealing the Deal

The intaglio from Saratoga is a component of a larger object known as a “seal”.  Personal or government seals were used to ensure that correspondence arrived unopened and/or to validate the authenticity of a document.  Sealing wax was melted over the folds of the letter or document and the seal pressed into it would leave the impression of the design.  The seal-making device is known as the seal matrix or die and the imprint it creates is known as the seal impression.  The intaglio could be fitted into many forms, such as a hand-held desk seal, signet ring or attached to a watch fob.   Seals were essential until about 1840 when the postage stamp and gummed envelopes were invented (Collon 1997:143).  Many types of seals have been used around the world and appear to have been used in even the earliest civilizations. Since their invention, they have been used to mark objects such as jars, baskets, boxes, and sacks, or documents, such as letters, ration lists, contracts, treaties, and scrolls (Collon 1997:9).

During the 18th century, both men and women developed a keen interest in watches and their prominent display.  Men had coats that showed more of the waistcoat and breeches and the gentleman’s pocket watch became a very important element of their appearance. The watch would attach to a chain, worn just below the waist, and suspended from a small pocket in the trousers known as a “fob”.   Eventually the term “fob” was applied to the watch as well as to the style of chain and associated trinkets suspended from the chain. The watch chain or ribbon, which would be on constant display, often displayed watch keys, seals, or other types of trinkets.

The main form of attachment of watches for women during the 18th century was a complex waist-hung accessory secured by a decorative waist plaque with a number of chains.  Each chain held a variety of toiletry, needlework, writing or small cutlery accessories (Cummins 2010: 21).  We now refer to this waist chain as a “chatelaine” however, the term chatelaine did not come to use until about 1828 when it was dubbed by the French. By the 19th century women began to wear watches on longer and lighter chains or wore a small watch attached to a brooch.

For both men and women, watches were worn to keep time, but they also became symbols of education and refinement (White 2005:133).  Seals often had one of the following: the owner’s initials, the family coat of arms, or more symbolic images and serious or playful mottos.  The pendant “fob-seal” not only began largely to replace the signet ring for sealing purposes, but became an indispensable article of jewelry in its own right.  Watches and their accessories were available in a wide range of materials and styles and were indicators of class (Collon 1997:149).


Captain Samuel H. Howes wears a seal fob in his 1828 portrait. Image source: Historic New England.


A silver chatelaine displaying a fob-seal.  Image Source: http://thegypsyfish.blogspot.com

Although the outer casing of the Saratoga intaglio was not found during the excavation, its smaller size and rectangular shape suggest that our piece was most likely a fob seal that would have been worn in this manner.  A complete watch fob seal was discovered archeologically at Minute Man National Historical Park (MIMA).  The MIMA seal has a brass casing, but other watch fob seals were made with precious metal such as gold or sterling silver.  It could also have been plated with a precious metal over a base-metal such as brass. The MIMA seal was an “isolated find” meaning that it was not found with other objects.  The twisted wire indicates how it may have been attached to the fob, and the casing and stone are in near perfect condition.  From these clues we can interpret that it was accidently dropped by its owner.  I’m sure the owner was simply crushed to discover it had been lost.

IMG_0557  MIMA arch 064

Fob seal from Minute Man National Historical Park. Photo by NMSC

The Saratoga intaglio had become separated from its housing so we are left to wonder what the rest of the seal might have looked like and whether the stone fell out accidently.  If the casing was a precious metal, it is possible that the intaglio was purposefully separated from its casing so the owner could replace it with another design.  The Minute Man seal features a family crest which would have been timeless as opposed to the image and motto featured on the Saratoga example.  Unfortunately we simply don’t know how or why the SARA intaglio was removed from the rest of the fob seal; however, the subjects depicted on the intaglio can provide a clue as to what the owner may have wished to convey by adopting the symbol of the pelican. Carolyn White has put forth that through objects of personal adornment “we are able to learn how the owner wished to be viewed by others and how their use of adornment acted as a ‘medium of communication’ to the rest of the world” (White 2005).

seal impression on clay 

Seal impression. Photo by Saratoga National Historical Park

The Symbolism of the Pelican

Pelicans have featured extensively in heraldry, generally using the Christian symbolism of the pelican as a caring and self-sacrificing parent. The pelican was used extensively during medieval period as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.  In times of distress the pelican was supposed to feed its young with her own blood and therefore the pelican became a symbol of self-sacrifice and charitable nature. When feeding her young (“in her piety”), the pelican symbolizes the duties of a parent or parental love.

Initially park archeologists assumed that the seal had belonged to a British soldier during the occupation of the Schuyler Estate in September-October 1777.  However, it could have also belonged to a civilian visiting the Schuyler Estate any time from 1770-1850.  It is never easy to connect an artifact with a single individual, especially if it does not bear initials or a family coat of arms.  Initially, we had thought that the sentiment and symbol of the pelican (feed “her” young) suggested that the owner was a female, but the sentiment of the self-sacrificing parent does not need to be taken literally.  For example, in the painting titled “The Pelican Portrait”, of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1573, a pelican is featured prominently in the center of the painting.  In this case the pelican symbolizes Elizabeth’s role as a mother to her people, rather than a parent.



Queen Elizabeth I: The Pelican Portrait’, by Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1573), in which Elizabeth I wears the medieval symbol of the pelican on her chest.

Image Source: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/13c-16c/er1.aspx

 Making a “Good Impression”

Artifacts of personal adornment are a very public display of personal identity.  Household furnishings such as furniture or ceramics can communicate quite a bit, but only if one is invited into the home.  An artifact worn on one’s person would be on display at all times.  Such items were valuable to their owners and are not often found archeologically as they were highly cherished and therefore passed down in the family.  Their rarity, symbolic meaning, and high value when in use suggest that they held special significance to the owner (White 2005:7).  A fob seal would communicate much as an item of adornment and attached to a document would both identify the owner and communicate a person’s very essence.  For these reasons, we have been delighted to rediscover the Saratoga intaglio and learn about the history, function, and significance of the watch fob seal.

This topic has inspired a lively discussion in our lab about what motto or symbol each of us would choose.  In our modern times, Facebook cover photos serve a similar function with respect to communicating ones identity and public image.   If you have one, ask yourself why you selected the cover photo currently on your page.  What do you think it communicates to those who visit your profile page?  Is it simply because it is pleasing to look at?  Does it highlight a loved one, a favorite hobby, or a recent trip? You may be surprised by what you think you identify with and what you actually have applied in such an instance.


Adams, Noël; Cherry, John; Robinson, James, eds. (2007). Good Impressions: Image and Authority in Medieval Seals. British Museum

Collon (ed.), Dominique (1997). 7000 Years of Seals. London: British Museum Press.

Cummins, Genevieve (2010).  How the Watch was Worn: A Fashion for 500 Years. Antique Collector’s Club.

Eckstein, Eve. (1987). Gentlemen’s Dress Accessories. Dyfed: C.I. Thomas & Sons.

Jenkinson, Hilary (1968). Guide to Seals in the Public Record Office. Public Record Handbooks 1 (2nd ed.). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Malcolm, David Samuel Lewis (1970). Antique Paste Jewellery (Faber Collectors Library).

Morris, David (2012). Matrix: A Collection of British Seals.

Wallace, John, (1936) “Accessories to Masculine Fashion” Discovering Antiques 19

White, Carolyn L. (2005). American Artifacts of Personal Adornment 1680-1820: A guide to Identification and Interpretation.  New York: Alta Mira Press.


About Alicia P

Alicia is the Curator of Archeology Collections at NMSC. She has worked for the National Park Service for over 16 years and loves the diversity of the work. As a historical archeologist she is interested in decorative arts especially gravestones, ceramics, and furniture. She loves to travel overseas and appreciates the art and achitecture of the middle east.
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