AN EXERCISE IN TRIAL AND ERROR
As part of our ongoing exploration of all things Medieval, my elder daughter had a go at making her own Medieval wax seal. Back in the Middle Ages large wax seals were used to authenticate and authorise documents and letters. The seal would be the wax object, rather than the article used to make an impression in the wax. The mould used to create these seals is called matrix or die.
So, first of all we needed a matrix. For this we used air-drying clay. My daughter wanted to make a matrix with a swan emblem but it got pretty confusing trying to fashion the surrounding space around an indented swan so in the end she decided to go for something much simpler as a first attempt and just chose some letters that are significant to her.
While she was at it, and to use up some more of the clay left over from making model Roman hypocausts, she also made a quick gargoyle, although hers can’t channel water. At school they made them from papier-mache but that is pretty messy and takes ages and, as I mentioned, we had a load of terracotta-coloured clay to use up…
Once the matrix had dried we melted some beeswax to make the seal. You can buy beeswax online pretty cheaply (I bought ours on eBay) and can choose from bar or bead form. I bought the bars because I thought they looked sort of authentic and artisan. A quick internet search of how to melt beeswax indicated the double boiler method was an easy and effective method. This is when I realised that, like the experts we met at the National Archives‘ Medieval Day, I should have bought the wax in bead form. It took at least 45 minutes to melt the small bar of beeswax, even having cut it up into smaller pieces.
I also looked up how to colour the wax. We decided not to bother with traditional dyes and to just use food colouring, as suggested online. My daughter decided on a burgundy colouring and we added it once the wax had entirely melted. We stirred vigorously but it was very hard to stop the wax and colour from starting to separate so we did our best and then poured the wax into the matrix. As we were doing this in the early evening (partly due to the length of melting time needed) we decided to err on the side of caution and give the seal all night to cool and harden.
The next morning the exposed area of wax was the colour of the original beeswax so we assumed that the colouring had, as we suspected, sunk to the bottom of the matrix. Using a knife we carefully eased the seal out, managing not to break the matrix, which was quite pleasantly surprising. (Okay, I did chip it a little, but what’s a little snapped clay between friends?) Tipping it up to turn out the seal we discovered that most of the colouring had, in fact, completely separated from the wax and had welled in the base of the matrix, only to pour out and all over my kitchen worktop, which now has some bright pink splodges. The finished seal was an unevenly coloured, rather peculiar-looking thing. My daughter was upset and said it looked moldy but I think it looks sort of antiquated.
As a first attempt I don’t think it’s too bad. Now we know that we can make matrices and seals in this way we can start to be a little braver with designs. I think we will be a lot less brave in our attempts to colour the wax; at least for a little while. The actual colour of the beeswax is fine as it is and we can always come back to colouring later.