Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Securing valuables in the ancient world

Security of possessions has been a primary concern since humans began accumulating anything of value. Locks were invented to address this issue about 6,000 years ago as evidenced by examples discovered in the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria.  Locks evolved in ancient Egypt to a wooden pin lock consisting of a  bolt, door fixture or attachment, and key. When the key was inserted, pins within the fixture were lifted out of drilled holes within the bolt, allowing it to move. When the key was removed, the pins fell part-way into the bolt, preventing movement. 

This design evolved further into a warded lock, a type of lock that uses a set of obstructions, or wards, to prevent the lock from opening unless the correct key is inserted. The correct key has notches or slots corresponding to the obstructions in the lock, allowing it to rotate freely inside the lock. Warded locks were used in both Rome and ancient China.

The Romans were the first to introduce steel ward springs in the locking mechanism between 100-200 CE. An example found in Sweden and now on display in the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm uses dual ward springs. When locked, the springs rest against a wall of the lock body with two notches that match a key with corresponding dual bits. The two curved bits of the key fit into the notches and depress the springs to free the shackle.  

Keys to Roman locks varied in complexity and ornamentation.  Some were small and light with easy-to-grasp bows while others were shaped like humans or animals.  Still others included the shapes of the architecture containing the related lock.  Tiny keys that unlocked jewelry boxes were sometimes fashioned into finger rings that were worn as status symbols indicating the wearer had property valuable enough to protect.

Key with a horse-head handle Roman 100-200 CE Bronze and iron that I photographed at the Getty Villa

Roman key with bronze boar and Pan portrait 1st century CE at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Keys from the grounds of a villa rustica in Bondorf, near Böblingen, 2nd-3rd century, at the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, Germany courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Anagoria.

Iron key with a bronze lion handle probably from a Roman temple 100-150 CE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Gryffindor.

Roman key finger ring, 2nd -3rd century CE at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Mattes

Key with a Dog-Shaped Handle Roman 1-100 CE Bronze and Iron that I photographed at the Getty Villa

A variety of Roman keys at the Landesmuseum Württemberg - Stuttgart, Germany, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Diagram of Roman padlock with chain 500 BCE - 300 CE courtesy of

Diagram of a Roman padlock with shackle and ward springs courtesy of

Key with Bow, 2nd - 3rd century courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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