Not currently on display at the V&A

Ring

200-400
Place of origin

The Romans were skilled locksmiths and invented finger rings in the form of keys. They seem to have been used across the Roman Empire. They are usually made of bronze or iron and the different shapes of the wards suggest that they were intended for use as keys rather than being merely decorative. Key rings may have been used because Roman clothing does not generally have pockets or perhaps for the added security of always having the key on your person. The key rings opened small boxes or caskets of personal possessions such as jewellery boxes rather than doors or cupboards. It is possible that they were particularly worn by women, perhaps after marriage as a sign of their new status. Keys and locks might also have had an amuletic significance, relating to the power of the key to secure and protect or open and reveal.

Roman key rings have been found in some numbers in British archaeological sites including London and Colchester. The excavation of a Roman grave in Colchester in the 1970s uncovered a wooden box with copper fittings which had been buried with the key ring still in the lock.

This ring forms part of a collection of around 600 rings and engraved gems from the collection of Edmund Waterton (1830-87). Waterton was one of the foremost ring collectors of the nineteenth century and was the author of several articles on rings, a book on English devotion to the Virgin Mary and an unfinished catalogue of his collection (the manuscript is now the National Art Library). Waterton was noted for his extravagance and financial troubles caused him to place his collection in pawn with the London jeweller Robert Phillips. When he was unable to repay the loan, Phillips offered to sell the collection to the Museum and it was acquired in 1871. A small group of rings which Waterton had held back were acquired in 1899.

Object details

Category
Object type
Materials and techniques
Brief description
Bronze key ring, Roman Empire, 3rd century or later.
Physical description
Bronze key ring with hollow stem and two wards.
Dimensions
  • Diameter: 2.1cm
  • Height: 1.6cm
Height of bezel
Object history
Previously in the Waterton Collection. Edmund Waterton listed 5 key rings in the manuscript catalogue to his ring collection, of which three were acquired in Rome, two in London, one of which was in the river Thames.
Described in the 'Dactyliotheca Watertoniana' as "These five rings are all of different types; some have 'pipes' and some have not. It is not improbable that these rings may have been worn by the slaves. A Roman key ring of silver was found at Ostia in 1858. W. King observes " these must be the 'secret rings', the cryptoclaves of the ancients, for when the wards were turned inside the hand, they would appear as simple rings."

The Museum of London holds a large group of bronze key rings excavated in London, showing that the style was worn across the Roman Empire. The variety of different wards on the rings shows that they were intended for practical use, rather than being merely decorative. An excavation from a Roman site in Colchester found a number of different key rings along with a small box which still had the key in the lock (Nina Crummy, 'Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester 1971-9", 1983 p. 84-5).

There is a group of bronze key rings in the Koch collection - the closest parallel is cat. 37, a similar key ring is said to have been found at Augst, Germany.
Summary
The Romans were skilled locksmiths and invented finger rings in the form of keys. They seem to have been used across the Roman Empire. They are usually made of bronze or iron and the different shapes of the wards suggest that they were intended for use as keys rather than being merely decorative. Key rings may have been used because Roman clothing does not generally have pockets or perhaps for the added security of always having the key on your person. The key rings opened small boxes or caskets of personal possessions such as jewellery boxes rather than doors or cupboards. It is possible that they were particularly worn by women, perhaps after marriage as a sign of their new status. Keys and locks might also have had an amuletic significance, relating to the power of the key to secure and protect or open and reveal.

Roman key rings have been found in some numbers in British archaeological sites including London and Colchester. The excavation of a Roman grave in Colchester in the 1970s uncovered a wooden box with copper fittings which had been buried with the key ring still in the lock.

This ring forms part of a collection of around 600 rings and engraved gems from the collection of Edmund Waterton (1830-87). Waterton was one of the foremost ring collectors of the nineteenth century and was the author of several articles on rings, a book on English devotion to the Virgin Mary and an unfinished catalogue of his collection (the manuscript is now the National Art Library). Waterton was noted for his extravagance and financial troubles caused him to place his collection in pawn with the London jeweller Robert Phillips. When he was unable to repay the loan, Phillips offered to sell the collection to the Museum and it was acquired in 1871. A small group of rings which Waterton had held back were acquired in 1899.
Bibliographic references
  • Oman, Charles, Catalogue of rings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1930, reprinted Ipswich, 1993, p. 58, cat. 168
  • Waterton, Edmund Dactyliotheca Watertoniana: a descriptive catalogue of the finger-rings in the collection of Mrs Waterton, (manuscript, 1866, now in National Art Library), p.77
  • Crummy, N. 1983. 'Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester, 1971-9'; Colchester : Colchester Archaeological Trust Ltd, pp 84-85.
Collection
Accession number
547-1871

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Record createdJune 24, 2009
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