Rare Roman gold seal featuring elephant found in Norfolk

A wax seal made using the gold Roman elephant matrix found in East Walton.

A wax seal made using the gold Roman elephant matrix found in East Walton. - Credit: Norfolk County Council

A Roman seal featuring an elephant carrying a ‘war-tower’ on its back uncovered in a field in Norfolk is amongst the latest treasures revealed by the British Museum.

The medieval gold seal matrix with a Roman stone intaglio which experts have dated back to around 1250–1350 AD was found in East Walton.

The latest treasure annual report, released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the British Museum, includes over 20,906 individual artefacts unearthed from 1,094 digs in 2018.

The largest number of treasure finds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was in Norfolk with 103 cases.

The largest number of treasure finds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was in Norfolk with 103 cases. - Credit: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Some 96pc of the finds were uncovered by metal-detectorists, with items from 347 of the digs acquired by 108 different museums, predominantly local ones.

Norfolk saw the largest number of treasure discovered of any county in the UK with 103 cases, almost one in 10 of the total finds.

To coincide with the report the British Museum also revealed more recent finds of national significance including the East Walton matrix seal discovered last year.

The tiny village, in a prosperous farming area since Roman times, features a Roman sea-wall.

Rare gold Roman matrix seal featuring an elephant found in East Walton.

Rare gold Roman matrix seal featuring an elephant found in East Walton. - Credit: Norfolk County Council


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Beverley Nenk, curator of the museum’s later medieval collections, said: “This gold counter-seal, or private seal, would have been used to seal letters or documents, and demonstrated the wealth, status and education of its owner. 

“The motif engraved on the gemstone is a rare portrayal of an elephant from the medieval period, which is found mainly on objects signifying wealth and status, such as carved ivory gaming pieces and heraldic badges.” 

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Few people in medieval England would have seen a live elephant. On the seal it is represented with a ‘war-tower’, or howdah, on its back, which subsequently became known as the ‘elephant and castle’ of heraldic iconography. 

The tiny village of East Walton has links to its Roman past including a sea wall.

The tiny village of East Walton has links to its Roman past including a sea wall. - Credit: Geograph

“The image may have been based on reports of these fabulous and exotic creatures from travellers or pilgrims returning from the East or from the Crusades, or from descriptions and images in bestiaries and other manuscripts,” said Ms Nenk.

Under the Treasure Act finders have a legal obligation to report all significant finds to the local coroner. The act allows a national or local museum to acquire objects for public benefit.

Norwich Castle Museum has reopened. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Norwich Castle Museum is hoping to acquire the East Walton matrix seal. - Credit: Archant

Norwich Castle Museum is reportedly hoping to acquire the East Walton matrix seal.

Other nationally significant items highlighted were a rare and quirky silver gilt 'snail man' mount uncovered near Pontefract in West Yorkshire, and a bronze rapier blade found as part of a Bronze Age hoard in Dorset.

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