Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Colonial French Seals

           One of the largest commodities traded between Europeans and Natives during the 17th and 18th centuries in New France was cloth. Europeans would have given the Natives cloth in exchange for fur. Lead seals, also referred to as bale seals, were attached to the cloth packages for a variety of purposes. Catherine Davis wrote in her Honors Thesis in the WMU Department of Anthropology in 2014 that seals were used for taxation, or to prove that no one had tampered with the package. They were inspected by grand jures, who were elected officials from cloth making guilds. They then were attached to the packages to prove that they had passed inspection. Once they had served their main purpose as “merchant tags”, they were often melted down to make lead ammunition (Davis 2014).
Seal of the Crown stamped on a lead seal.
(photo by John Cardinal)
Lead seals usually contained information including where cloth was manufactured, the size, and the quality (Davis 2014). If there was no seal present on a package, whomever had tried to sell the cloth without the seal could have been charged or had their cloth confiscated and destroyed (Davis 2014). These kinds of seals were manufactured particularly in Britain and France, but can be found elsewhere in the world because the British East India Company and the Africa Royal Adventurers’ Company used lead seals too (Davis 2014).
As cloth does not often withstand the tests of time, and therefore is typically absent from the archaeological record, lead seals are all we have left to tell us about the cloth in New France. Even still, lead seals can be very difficult to understand. This is partially due to the fact that there are so few in museum collections. In North America, the largest collection of lead seals comes from Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinac City. All of the seals found at Fort Saint Joseph can be found at the Center for History in South Bend, IN or at the Fort Saint Joseph Museum here in Niles.
Discovering the lead seal in our wet screen.
(photo by John Cardinal)
Lyle Stone conducted a study of lead seals in 1974 at Fort Michilimackinac, and wrote about the classification of lead seals by two discerning characteristics. The first is by type of attachment, the second by decoration. Charles Hulse in his 1977 thesis also classifies the types of attachment. Series A is classified by a knob was pressed through a loop hole and then compressed, Series B is classified by a flange being compressed onto a disc, and Series C is attached by stringing two wires through two separate tunnels.
In our unit, Stephan and I recovered two lead seals. One of them is classified as a Series C which is a one piece seal stamped on both sides. Our seal has a crossed wreath with five markings on one face. The letters “CDI” can be read on the top, and underneath it, a backwards “C” and a regular “C”. On the reverse face, the Seal of the Crown is stamped on. I just happened to stumble upon this seal while I was wet screening our soil last week, and upon further research, Stone points out that the one piece, two faced stamped seals are fairly uncommon. When I discovered this, I was even more excited about this seal! I am looking forward to learning more about lead seals with more (hopefully) lead seal recoveries.


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