This is heritage science…wax seals in context – an interdisciplinary research project

Dr Elke Cwiertnia, Conservation Scientist at The National Archives, introduces a recently completed project that uses heritage science to shed light on the use of wax seals as communication devices.



Although wax seals have been widely studied with regard to their iconography, their materiality and importance as communication devices are still not fully understood. The National Archives (UK), ‘Wax Seals in Context’ project addressed unanswered questions concerning the study of medieval wax seals by investigating their materiality, manufacture and use allowing us to understand better the making and meaning of this important medium of medieval communication.

Image: wax seal of Henry of Lancaster (TNA: E26 / A 60, B series cord E)

Using heritage science (visual examination, material analysis such as XRF), reproduction of recipes for sealing wax and archival evidence the project has focused on English royal and governmental seals of the 12th and 13th centuries.

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis on a wax seal to investigate the elements (which helps to identify the pigments used).
Verdigris (green pigment) in beeswax, after artificial ageing for 3 weeks (colour change on the edges of the pigment).
Reproduction of sealing wax mixture, here: verdigris (green pigment) in beeswax, colour changes due to heating for several hours.


To find out more, please visit The National Archives website.

This is heritage science…medieval window glass

In this post, David Dungworth of Historic England explores new ways of looking at decorated medieval window glass. He explains the use of two X-ray based techniques to improve the visibility of the decoration on the glass, traditional X-radiography and a new technique, scanning micro X-ray fluorescence (µXRF).


Coloured, painted and sometimes stained window glass decoration has been a feature of English churches for over a millennium. The ‘atmosphere’ inside a church often depends on the lighting and the decorated windows give daylight rich and varied hues.

While the earliest decorated windows were simple ‘mosaics’ of coloured glass, most later windows were also painted to illustrate scenes from the bible, the lives of saints, royalty, heraldry or benefactors. Some medieval window glass remains in its original windows but most has been moved at least once and much of it has been destroyed.

Medieval window glass has also been found by archaeologists. Although the decoration on some medieval window glass survives well, the glass itself tends to corrode which can make the glass ‘unreadable’. The decoration on a significant proportion of decorated medieval window glass from archaeological excavations is simply not visible.

Hugh Threlfall recently donated a collection of medieval window glass to Historic England which is being used to test a new approach which should improve the ways in which we can view its decoration. The glass (over 1000 fragments) is generally in rather poor condition. Some examples have corroded so much that they are now opaque and the decoration all but invisible (in some cases a layer of mortar appears to have been applied to the decorated surface of the glass).

Imaging the Decorated Glass

We have explored the use of two x-ray based techniques to improve the visibility of this decoration. Traditional X-radiography works well in some cases and we have also begun to use a new technique – scanning micro X-Ray Fluorescence (µXRF). X-ray fluorescence is widely used to discover the chemical composition of materials, by micro-focussing the X-ray beam it can be directed on a tiny spot (0.02mm). By scanning (using a motorised platform) it is possible to scan across the surface of an object. Importantly the paint has a different composition to the underlying glass: it contains high levels of iron and lead. By looking at scans of these two elements we get a picture of the original decoration.

Types of Decoration on the Glass

So far just over 200 fragments have been scanned using µXRF and it is clear that the painted designs on many are closely related. Most were part of the same decorative scheme and so were probably made at the same time and came from the same building (and possibly even the same window). There are a few fragments which have quite different designs. These designs suggest later manufacture (in most cases these fragments are also far less corroded).

Threlfall Glass #0001. A devil from the Torments of Hell? 

Note the yellow was achieved using silver staining which suggests to us that it was manufactured after the beginning of the 14th century.

Most of the glass is painted to produce simple shapes based on leaves or curvilinear geometric shapes (called grisaille). Commonly, some fields are left plain while others, in contrast, are painted with much thinner lines to produce cross-hatching.

A common border comprises a wavy line and dots but this is clearly related to the cross-hatching as at least one fragment of glass has elements of both. This type of grisaille decoration was popular in the first half of the 13th century. Numerous parallels can be found among glass from York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral and Battle Abbey.


A few fragments of glass are decorated with letters, mostly in a font usually described as Lombardic which was commonly used in decorated glass (and manuscripts) until the later 13th century. Careful examination of the lettering suggests that these were produced by two different glass painters. While TG#0010 is well executed, TG#0019 clearly shows how the letter was produced by scraping away paint (before it was fired). TG#0020 contains the letters REX which possibly refer to a king.

Figurative representations are rare but include part of a seated figure (TG#0022) whose right hand is extended with all four fingers straight (ie not a gesture of benediction) suggesting a secular figure (possibly a king). One fragment (TG#0051) comprises part of a face and another (TG#0109) shows the battlements of a castle from a canopy.

The Ian Threlfall Collection and Alcester Abbey

Hugh’s father (R Ian Threlfall) had been a barrister who, in the middle of the 20th century, helped archaeologically excavate a number of medieval sites (usually with Martyn Jope). Ian found numerous archaeological artefacts when sorting out the family home. He managed to work out where most of them had come from and donate them to the appropriate museum; however, there was a large collection of medieval window glass with no information about its origin. A thorough search through Historic England Archives revealed that R Threlfall was the director of archaeological excavations by the Birmingham Archaeological Society at a Benedictine monastery at Alcester Abbey in 1938. The abbey was founded in the late 1130s but went into decline in the 14th century, had become a cell of Evesham Abbey in 1465 and was dissolved in 1540.

R I threlfall QC
Ian Threlfall

This is heritage science…interactions of fungi with heritage collections

Our next posting for @ScienceWeek UK #BSW2016 brings you fungi as you’ve (probably) never seen them before. Sophie Downes describes investigations into the interactions of fungi with heritage collections in a doctoral project sponsored by English Heritage and the National Trust. The research will help to show how fungi can degrade materials by changing the fibre characteristics (like surface topology or dimensions) as well as discovering how they grow into materials, not just on the surface. This can have implications for conservation treatment and cleaning, as well as thinking about how objects are displayed and monitored.

The doctoral project to investigate the interactions of fungi with heritage collections is in its third year with the current phase of work, involving confocal laser scanning fluorescence microscopy, running for the next 12 weeks.

Confocal laser scanning fluorescence microscopy is often used for live cell imaging. Using an adapted mounting technique, it has been possible to use this technology to view viable fungi interacting with organic materials, representative of heritage collections.

A) Lignin free beech paper inoculated with Cladosporium cladosporioides after 4 weeks of growth at 20 degrees C and in high relative humidity.

Nine different organic materials have been inoculated with the three most prevalent fungi found in historic buildings (during this project) and images recorded weekly to monitor growth and changes in the materials. The materials and fungi are each dyed with a different stain so that they will fluoresce at different wavelengths, producing a different colour in the final image.

B) Orthogonal slice (XZ plane) through image A showing the distribution of fungi through the depth of the paper fibres.


C) Orthogonal slice (YZ plane) through image A showing the distribution of fungi through the depth of the paper fibres.

Using this technique, it is also possible to create a stack of orthogonal images as the laser penetrates through the material. This means that live fungal growth can be observed in three dimensions.

Video of 3D projection of the image.

The research will provide greater insight into fungal growth on heritage collections with forthcoming publications sharing the knowledge with other heritage professionals.