Imprint: A Forensic and Historical Investigation of Fingerprints on Medieval Seals

Zusammenfassung des Beitrags zum Workshop (14./15.9.2015):

Philippa Hoskin, University of Lincoln / Elizabeth New, Aberystwyth University

In 2012, Dr Elizabeth New, Aberystwyth University, and Professor Philippa Hoskin, University of Lincoln, began to discuss the fingerprints often found on the reverse of medieval wax seals, left in the soft wax when the seal impression was made. Could forensics experts help to investigate these prints? This led in 2013 to a pilot project, funded by the University of Lincoln, which sampled sealed documents form Hereford Cathedral Archives, a collection that was known to be rich in seals with visible prints because of its inclusion in the earlier UK Arts & Humanities Research Council Seals in Medieval Wales project dataset. For the 2013 pilot project Luke McGarr, a forensics expert from Forensics Focus, worked with the then Cathedral archivist, Rosalind Caird to identify seals dated 1150-1350 in Hereford Cathedral with clearly visible prints. He was able to find 200 such prints, although this did not mean 200 prints which proved suitable for further analysis: approximately 40% of these 200 prints revealed information suitable for the project’s purposes.

The pilot project allowed us to learn about the process of taking these images and also to find some interesting preliminary results. An unexpected discovery was that until 1300 palm prints rather than fingerprints were found on the wax, with a shift in the fourteenth century to a mix of palm and finger prints. Amongst a collection of seals all datedto 1225-1250, and all small grants or confirmations of land, all the prints found were of parts of the palm of the hand. When John the Clerkd, made a similar grant of property in c.1300, however, the print left upon his seal was of the whorl of the finger. In addition, the pilot revealed matching prints across different documents for one recipient from different donors, but the reasons for this need further investigation since the scribes and witnesses also differ. Furthermore, where there are multiple seals on one document sometimes the prints match, but sometimes they do not. From this data it was clear that more extensive sampling and analysis was likely to yield further new information, and we applied, successfully for AHRC funding for a major project to expand the scope and remit of the investigation.

Imprint: a forensic and historical investigation of fingerprints on medieval seals started in January 2016. The project is looking at seals dated 1150-1350 at Hereford, Exeter and Lincoln Cathedrals and at Westminster Abbey, and the Margam Abbey charters in the National Library of Wales. Forensics Focus are once again providing forensics expertise, but for the new project we are using a Crime Lite Imager©, a multi-sectoral imager that, as well as providing higher quality images, should enable at least part of the sample to be run through the AFIS database system used by the Home Office in the UK. Digital photographs of the seals and documents are also being taken and information recorded in a relational database in order to provide the maximum amount of information for analysis.

The principal research questions being addressed include the implications of sealing practice for revealing new evidence about networks of power, exchange and authority; the ‘performative act of sealing’, ritual and administration; sealing practice in relation to legal and administrative developments; the creation of proof and misuse of authority; and, from a forensic perspective, the viability of prints over time, technical challenges of identifying overlaid prints on uneven surface, adding to the body of evidence to support the uniqueness of prints.