Mystery of medieval Norfolk seal solved by man in California

The seal inverted with its inscription potentially decoded

The seal inverted with its inscription potentially decoded as 'DECLIN...' - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

A burnt and partly-melted medieval silver seal, discovered in Norfolk, has had its cryptic inscription potentially decoded by a man in California. 

The seal, which dates from the 13th or 14th century, was discovered by a metal detectorist in August 2020 in Gayton, near King’s Lynn, and contains a reused Roman gem. Carved into the gem is a picture of a man holding a spear upright - a representation of the god Mars. 

In Alameda, California, 5,290 miles away, a man called Alex Cortez saw a tweet about the artefact and its border inscription - the central part of which the UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme had deemed too damaged to decipher. 

The seal discovered in Gayton, near King's Lynn, in August 2020

The seal was discovered in Gayton, near King's Lynn, in August 2020 - Credit: Norfolk County Council

But Mr Cortez, having carried out extensive research, discovered that the inscription could come from the biblical psalm 36:27, or in modern bibles, Psalm 37, the BBC reported.

The psalm reads “Declina a Malo, a fac bonum", and means “decline from evil and do good”.

Norfolk finds liaison officer Dr Helen Geake said psalm extracts had been found in other seals from the period and that Mr Cortez’s had made “a good parallel” by comparing it with a seal discovered in Shropshire in 2006. 

The seal was discovered in Gayton, near King's Lynn, in August 2020

The seal was discovered in Gayton, near King's Lynn, in August 2020 - Credit: Norfolk County Council

Mr Cortez, who works as an industrial procurement specialist, told the BBC: "I love a good puzzle, so I started looking at news sites and English archaeology sites to see if I could figure it out.

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The American, who has interest in archaeology, said he “got lucky” when he discovered an article about a similar artefact. 

"That one had an inscription that was identified as part of a psalm in Latin - so I had a hunch - what if this was common in the 13th century, to take an old carved stone and reset it in silver with a psalm?” said Mr Cortez.

"So I scrutinized the photos and went through a Latin psalter until I found a likely candidate.

"As it happens, I had a free morning."

Dr Geake said she was "really grateful" to him for "solving the mystery" and that she hoped Mr Cortez would "have a look at our hundreds of other hitherto-undeciphered seals and see if more can be understood".