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XXI

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Roman Locks - Home      Locks Introduction       Roman Padlocks       Roman Chest Locks       Roman Door Locks      Roman Seals     References

Roman Keys

by Donald Jackson

Door Keys & Latch Lifters
Figural Keys
Pin Tumbler Keys
Rotary Long Keys
Warded Long Keys
Ring Keys
Folding Keys
Padlock Slide Keys
Votive Keys
Celtic Keys
Continued with Medieval Keys

The most abundant items of Roman security hardware seem to be keys and lock bolts. Keys were used mainly for doors, chests, boxes, caskets, cupboards and padlocks. Less often they were used for ceremonial or decorative purposes, such as matron keys, jewelry items and votive offerings.

It is alleged that some ring keys were worn by women as symbols of household authority, as "keeper of the keys." This is probably true, but such are difficult to identify as having served that purpose. Ornamental items would be represented by keys 394 and 486, where they are attached to hair pins.

Regarding composite keys, a passage from James is worth quoting here: "The most elaborate keys combined a bronze handle with an iron shank. This meant that the handle could be mass-produced by casting in a mold and then assembled with an individually made shank." Unfortunately, this also allows fakers to create keys in the same way, taking genuine but worthless rusty iron and either separated ancient or freshly cast handles.

Door Keys & Latch Lifters

Door locks were sometimes made of wood, usually with iron keys, but sometimes of bronze. Such locks have not survived, but keys have been found. The latch lifter was a primitive key, a very simple metal, bone or ivory shaft with a hook or a couple of teeth on the end. In use, it was to pass through a hole in a door and fit into a latch to lift and move it. The Romans did not need to invent the latch lifter; it was used by other early peoples. Key 372 in the Related Keys section is a Celtic example. Such keys were not really intended for serious security, but more as a convenience in lifting the inside bolt. A variety of latch lifters was found at Vindolanda.

Iron latch lifters are found in two types: L-shape and T-shape. In this collection, as elsewhere, the L-shape is most common For an extensive discussion of these iron keys, see Manning 1985.

Key 299 This was obviously a custom made assembly, for someone who knew exactly what he wanted. In fact, it was probably made by an in-house smith, as in an isolated villa. Villas in Britain, for example, tended to be completely self-sufficient. Both door key and ring key are iron.

Key 300 Fairly typical iron door key. They tended to be long and heavy, and many survived in spite of centuries of rusting away.

Key 315 Another very nice composite which has survived very well, considering.

Key 366 A key for double security! This is the key, or rather latch lifter, for a primitive type of wooden lock, inserted through the door, rotated and drawn into the bolt. The knife on the other end was of some comfort to the householder returning home through the dangerous streets of the Roman city at night!

Key 368 Another elegant composite. It almost seems that while appreciating the appearance of bronze, the Romans distrusted its strength for heavy duty door operation.

Key 376 Drilled rotary key with concretions

Key 378 Quite similar to 366, but with the more conventional loop for hanging?

Key 381 This heavy bronze key shows considerable shrinkage, caused by improper gating in the casting process.

Key 382 Very heavy and strong, likely for a door but perhaps for an extremely massive chest. Excellent condition for iron.

Key 385 Iron with two parallel rows of three teeth, which is quite a lot for this type

Key 397 Unusual design, the only one I've seen with a second row of teeth at a right angle.

Key 434 An unusual specimen in several ways. The bitting is perpendicular to the plane of the shaft, so that a little notch had to be added to enable the neck to be passed through the usual narrow slot. Also, the ring has a recessed area around it on one side, for no obvious purpose. There has been a little decoration added in the form of cast-in lines and a depression, scooped out of the wax model with a special tool. All this is a reminder of the great variability in Roman keys, which cautions us against making generalizations. Never say never or always, because every Roman locksmith was evidently pretty much free to invent and carry out his own designs.

Key 495 Unusual and crude. May at one time have had a hanging loop

Key 522 After removing loose rust and dirt from this one, what emerged was a type I've never seen before, a figural key in iron. It's so blurred by corrosion that all I can tell is that it's the figure of a person with arms folded. It would have taken a great deal of finishing work, and must have been expensive.

Key 553 Composite, iron with a bronze handle.

Key 560 Iron, more complex than usual, to pass a ward.

Key 732 Primitive iron door key. Compare with alleged Celtic key 372 in the text.

Key 740 Well preserved iron

Key 1081 Added this one because of its unusual configuration: short handle, a trio of bits at right angles.

Figural Keys

Figural keys, as representations of living beings, are the most sought-after, rare and expensive of all. It's an emotional response thing. Unfortunately they have also attracted the attention of fakers, and should be acquired with the greatest care. Reproductions and designs of pure fantasy are common, and I will guess that very few collections have not been infected.

Key 200S, 200T In addition to iron, many bimetallic keys have been found, with bronze handles cast on heavy iron shafts. Figural lion bronze/iron door keys are especially rare and desirable; for example, see the key below from Augusta Raurica (Riha) labeled Basel Lion. This is the finest example I've ever seen. My own lion key is nice, but lacks the elaborate, richly detailed modeling of this key. Below the Basel Lion are two more superb door keys that we can only admire, since they are in museums. The first is a horse head key from the Getty (flickr) and the second a Molossian hound head key excavated from Mevaniola (archeobo).

Key 356 I guess this delightful little figural qualifies as a cartoon. I've seen only one other like it.

Key 360 Delightful figural with a ram head, a battering ram on a very tiny scale.

Key 418 Bronze folding key. The ends of the shaft are marked to simulate a hand with fingers grasping the ring. Remarkably, there are no shoulders on this ring to keep the rest of the key from sliding around it. Key 338 in the folding ring section is quite similar, but is iron and so corroded that I missed the hand at first. It is a rotary key.

Key 423 Panther head

Key 510 Composite figural key, iron and bronze, showing a man's face in the handle.

Key 542 I suppose this would be for a supplicant who was wealthy or had a very important invocation, or both. It's not evident who the heads were intended to represent

Key 603 Composite bronze figural lion key with iron shank and bits. The ironwork is a nearly shapeless mass of rust and concretion, and is likely quite fragile. The magnet test indicates no metallic iron remains.

Key 653 Roman bronze and iron boar's head.

Key 743 Don't think I've ever seen another lion key with his tongue hanging out. There is a hole for a hanging loop, now filled with concretion. Compare to lion key 200.

Key 796 This is the only phallic key I've ever seen.

Key 854 A nice example of the ever popular lion key. Turning slightly in 854 B, se see that this one has the head of a cow in its mouth. The proportions are off, but we get the idea.

Long Keys, Pin Tumbler

The purposes of many keys are not clear. The term "long" is merely a convenience and does not classify them by usage. It is likely that some of the keys in this section are for doors and some for chests or cupboards.

Key 303 This is an interesting design, but could not be carried securely. Looks like it was meant to be hung up somewhere.

Key 314 This is one of my favorites: heavy, chunky, geometric.

Keys 213, 260, 261, 275 The iron key section, part 1 We can't even guess the original ratio of iron to bronze keys that were produced, but enough iron keys have survived to show that they were in common use. As a class, they seem much less ornate, and I suspect that they were cheaper. Functional, but not much prestige here!

Keys 202, 214, 259, 321 Iron keys, part 2

Key 325 So far I haven't been able to think of a reason for the strange design of this one. It is unusually thick, and has a section of iron about 0.1" thick sandwiched between bronze top and bottom. No doubt the thickness of the shank is to allow it to be poured around an iron core without cracking, buy why should the bit section be continued in bronze?

Key 328 There are some unusual things about this one. For one, it's a folding key, first of this size I've seen. Also, the bits are opposite to those of all the bit keys shown here. It's alleged to be Byzantine, maybe that has something to do with it.

Keys 329, 331 The Romans, like most everyone else up until very recent times, thought that everyday objects should be enhanced with as much decoration as could be afforded, or function would allow. We still haven't entirely abandoned that feeling, have we? The designs of Roman artifacts often included religious and architectural elements; remember the temple-furnace shown in the introduction? Keys 329 and 331 manage to work part of a temple facade into the design! I've seen keys in which this temple motif was carried out very elaborately. Figural Roman objects are very desirable, and command premium prices. On the other hand, see key 433 below which also has an openwork shaft.

Key 337 This is my smallest long format pin tumbler key, 1.460." It's unusual in that the pins were made by folding over the material, either the wax model or the bronze casting. Hard to say which, but I think it was in the wax. No idea why the fabricator would do such a thing. Clever, but I note that the bow is not very well done.

Key 343 Large, functional iron key, remarkable mostly for the curious flattened area along the shank. It was just smashed flat during fabrication, but I've no idea why this was done.

Key 350 Unusually large rotary key, with intact iron. Typical bow design for large bimetallic keys.

Keys 367, 371 Noticed that these have a similar decoration, cast-in bevels on either side of the shank. Otherwise, simply very nice examples of not-quite ring keys. Wearing them on fingers would be uncomfortable.

Key 370 This is a type of long-format key that is not rare, but not so common either. It is iron and strictly utilitarian. The pins are made separately and pressed into holes punched into the key blank. One protrudes a bit from the back, as I tried to show in figure 370B. I haven't seen any bolt that such a key might fit.

Key 382 Iron, very heavy and strong. Likely for a massive and important chest, perhaps for a banker's treasures.

Key 387 Very tiny specimen, for very small box or casket.

Key 394 Key on a hair pin, perhaps even functional. I think many are merely decorative.

Key 395 Clearly designed to be worn on a cord around the neck.

Key 398 Examination shows that it was bent in antiquity, and carefully done, at something close to a right angle, but why?  It must have been very awkward to use, and designed to move a bolt deeply concealed in its container.

Key 403 Rotary barrel key with a unique feature. It was found to have a bronze sleeve in the bow. This was done in antiquity and became visible only upon cleaning. I do not know how or even why it was made this way, and have never seen any other example.

Key 405 This rotary barrel key has an unusual design. Upon cleaning, the bit was found to be of bronze! It was covered on both sides with a thick layer of magnetic scale. This was not further removed because of the fragile attachment of the bit to the shank. The bronze core is barely visible in 405b and 405c. I have no idea why there was such a thick adherent coating on the outside of the bronze. It almost looks like there was an outer iron coating, which makes no sense to me.

Key 409 Another bent key, this one with about a 30 degree angle. The condition of the surface shows that the bend was made in antiquity.

Key 410 This was obviously made to operate a large and heavy lock, but even so was clearly much thicker and stronger than it needed to be! Perhaps it was a prestige item in some way; it alone in this group has a decoration: a little projection on each side. Decorations were usually reserved for bronze keys.

Key 427 This is a remarkable production. The Romans made many iron keys, but a key shape as intricate and precise as this one looks extremely difficult to make by forging and finishing with hand tools. As for casting, the Romans did not attain the temperatures required for the melting of iron, except occasionally by accident. When that happened, they actually threw the product away as useless! (Collingwood). This specimen is extremely well preserved, although slightly over cleaned.

Key 433 This key would seem to say that openwork shafts are just whimsies of the locksmiths who designed them. The divided shaft is actually an outline of the more familiar solid shaft that flares toward the bottom. Coincidentally, the key outline is in the shape of a modern keyhole

Key 434 An unusual specimen in several ways. The bitting is perpendicular to the plane of the shaft, so that a little notch had to be added to enable the neck to be passed through the usual narrow slot. Also, the ring has a recessed area around it on one side, for no obvious purpose. There has been a little decoration added in the form of cast-in lines and a depression, scooped out of the wax model with a special tool. All this is a reminder of the great variability in Roman keys, which cautions us against making generalizations. Never say never or always, because Roman locksmith were evidently pretty much free to invent and carry out their own designs.

Key 439 The pins look like they were made to operate a pretty heavy bolt. But it looks like the bolt had finally got stuck in the open position, and the key was bent trying to move it forward.

Key 466 Sometimes it's hard be sure what a key could have been used for. This is an example of a door type key that's really too small for a wooden door lock, and awkwardly shaped for a pin tumbler lock. I'd have to guess it was for a cabinet lock.

Key 488 Composite bronze/iron key, showing the same splayed end bits as key 397. Don't know how this feature worked.

Key 498 Another composite bronze/iron key. Nice, but how did it work? How do you lift pins with big dimples? I'm missing something here.

Key 505 Iron, made in a thick shape more typical of bronze keys.

Key 510 Composite figural key, iron and bronze, showing a man's face in the handle.

Key 516 Unusually long pins on this one. This is the type of key that would be designed to operate a bolt with wards on the underside. It is in fact a rather rare type.

Key 517

Key 554 Tiny, but chunky and surprisingly heavy. I've seen only one other in this unusual style.

Key 605 This is another hairpin, ornamented with a simulated key on the end. The bits are symbolic, much too shallow to really function in a lock. The pin has been broken off and lost half to two thirds of its original length. It is carefully made, with sharp detailing.

Key 617 I like this one for its excellent state of preservation and for the over-designed structure. All that iron is necessary only to impress someone with its weight and heft. No bolt needs all that strength to be operated.

Key 622 An exceptionally tiny key, suitable for casket. Unusual, but looks authentic.

Key 642 Bronze hairpin key. Or more likely, a hairpin with key motif.

Key 651 Most of the pins have corroded away to stubs, but this is the type where they are inserted into a drilled iron plate. The comments on Key 370 are also applicable here.

Key 678 In this version, the pins are more prominent, but must have been much longer. They project only about 0.1 inch, which would require an impossibly thin bolt.

Key 781 One of the few examples in this collection of keys with no hole for suspension. Evidently it was intended to be carried with coins in a purse.

Key 799 Small but more ornamental than most with a delicate neck

Key 894 Unusually well preserved with a smooth, non-pitted surface. Since the bits are at the same surface as the stem, that slot must have been to accommodate an especially deep, thin ward on the bolt.

Key 901 I would have previously stated that keys are never found with matching bolts. It would be a very unusual circumstance for them to be associated after being discarded. This is the only such set I have ever seen. The state of preservation is unusually good, and shows that they were made very carefully.

Key 922 A very special key with a cage handle, such as is rarely seen.

Key 1178 A curious iron key. The holes are almost certainly decorative. If there were ward pins through them, it could not rotate. Also, as a pin tumbler key, such pins would have to be mounted on the bolt. This is not impossible, but that is an unknown bolt type.

Key 1370 This must have been a novelty in its own time. No functional use that I can think of.

Long Keys, Rotary

Locks using rotary keys were first developed by the Romans. The keys are instantly recognizable to us; they resemble those in common use until the last century. I'm reproducing a drawing from Biasiotti that is the clearest I've seen of the functioning of a Roman lock operated by a rotary key. Rotary keys were also usually warded. They were contemporaneous with pin tumbler locks and keys, as shown by this example from Pompeii at left (Gilman). All rotary keys found at Pompeii have hollow stems, turning on a key post (archive). Curiously, a key handle closely resembling the key at left was excavated in Ukraine in 2010.

Key 225 Despite the iron stains, this is a bronze key

Key 228 Many keys are found with this little nib on top. Zara suggests that the purpose of this is to push or turn away a keyhole guard.

Key 224 The "shepherd's crook" design. This one is bronze, but the design is also found in iron keys

Key 304 This appears to have originally been a long format key, bent to a right angle in antiquity for some unknown reason. It is both delicate and elegant, and looks like an ornament rather than meant for serious use. It could not have been worn on a finger because of the tiny loop. If worn at all, must have been as an amulet.

Key 306 In addition to its size, this one is remarkable in that it has a carefully made chain attached to a leaf shaped plate, somewhat like a key tag. This is just like the tag shown before in chest lock group 4940.

Key 342 An odd one. Iron, but no signs of corrosion! A rotary key, but with small teeth on the edge. Two dimples as if holes were intended but not completed.

Key 327 Byzantine

Key 359 Extraordinarily chunky and heavy, built to last!

Key 365 I found this key interesting because the bitting is so remarkably similar to that of keys made in very recent times. I'm sure there are still locks around that could be opened by this key.

Key 422 Note that this key is a near duplicate to that shown by Ward, figure 3, key E, aside from the exact placement of the slots.

Key 426 An iron rotary key, very much in the modern style, with a comma shape bit and a cut in it to pass a ward. So far I haven't come across a lock plate or escutcheon made specifically to fit a key of this shape.

Key 442 Most such keys are flat. Seems a bit illogical to make the bow and shank perpendicular to the bit. It automatically makes the key more bulky.

Key 448 Large and pretty elaborate, almost too large for a chest, perhaps a door key. With keys having such elaborate bitting, one always wonders if it's not partly for show, and the wards are not really so complex.

Key 469 Raw casting of a rotary key, still attached to its gate. Alleged to be from 100 CE. The other key of the pair was broken off. Don't have much comment on it; speaks for itself. It was a very, very poor casting, all right, but why wasn't it melted down? Bronze scrap had value.

Key 499 A big, heavy specimen, perhaps a door key. Allegedly found in Britain

Key 503 At 1 inch long this must have been a casket key for sure.

Key 518 Iron key with hollow shank

Key 528 Bronze with two uncommon features: flattened for easier wearing and handling and designed to be worn as a pendant

Key 531 Also Byzantine, but made by folding, forging and filing iron sheet. Definitely a low-end product.

Key 533 Byzantine composite iron and bronze. Fairly simple but nicely made. The oval bow is carefully tapered and polished on both sides and the join is perfect.

Key 537 Extra compact specimen, very conveniently carried in a pouch.

Key 538 Odd shapes for both the bow and bitting

Key 540 Similar to Key 537

Key 541 The first one I've seen with a collar. That outlandishly long bit was originally still longer. Part has been broken off in antiquity.

Key 543 Simple, sturdy iron key, likely for a chest.

Key 544 One of the smallest keys I've found, and with a remarkably complex bit structure. This would clearly be for a small casket. It would be very easy to use, and I think was meant to be carried on a cord or chain around the neck.

Key 559 Byzantine bronze, very detailed

Key 606 Similar to 531, but made of folded bronze sheet and is delicate, even elegant.

Key 627 Byzantine iron. Pretty think and chunky at the rear, but the front half has been hammered thinner and folded over around a mandrel to form the stem.

Key 628 Byzantine iron.

Key 629 Byzantine iron. This and Key 628 are in the style of key with enlarged, flattened bow that was favored in western Europe in Carolingian, Saxon and Viking eras. They don't seem to have been common in Rome, although one such with flat pierced bow was found at Pompeii.

Key 633 Iron. It's a little hard to visualized what a lock with such a key would look like. An extremely thick door or a chest with a very deeply recessed lock? But it's crudely made, as though for a closure that was not thought worthy of skillful workmanship. It was made of two halves, forged not very carefully together.

Key 639 Iron, late Roman. That fancy lozenge shaped bow looks a bit like those so characteristic of medieval times.

Key 640 This Byzantine bronze is small, delicate and elegant, suitable for a casket of trinkets.

Key 645 Byzantine bronze. Similar to key 528

Key 652 Byzantine iron gate key. Much like key 342, except for the octagonal bow, and is much more finely crafted.

Key 657 Roman bronze. No idea what the purpose was of that extremely long nib on the end.

Key 677 The bits are made by just flattening the end of the stem and curling it into a tube, a process very familiar to primitive locksmiths of the last century. This is a pretty key now, but I think when it was made, it was not a very expensive article. The bow is nonexistent, just a hole drilled into the stem. It would be more difficult to turn, which would become a problem if the mechanism became balky.

Key 738 Much like 528 and 645. Evidently a popular style.

Key 790 The design is absurd: there is not enough leverage in the handle to turn, especially if the mechanism is a bit sticky. Must have been made that way for convenience in carrying or hanging. Certainly the worn out loop is evidence of lots of motion. The complex bits are for display only, suggesting it was meant to be seen while worn.

Key 943 Byzantine iron, similar to key 952, except nearly 50% larger.

Key 997 Interesting construction. I don't know the exact function of that long fin on the bottom, May be a guide. The long projecting bit has been broken off in antiquity.

Key 1007 No idea why that tiny hole was made in this tiny key. Looks modern.

Key 1082 With an ornate bow like this, the owner could not only have a little status symbol, but with a cross, could express his piety.

Key 1155 Tiny bronze key, perhaps suitable for a mask lock. With its original bronze ring and the remains of a suspension wire attached to that. The wire seems superfluous for any kind of suspension.

Key 1161 Unusual shape that I've only seen once before, in a Viking key from Ukraine. The end has been bent almost to a 90 degree angle in antiquity when it was new and not so brittle.

Key 1174 Unusual in the setback and depth of the bit.

Key 1202 Iron, alleged Roman. Don't know if the bow had that shape originally, or has just been squashed.

Key 1222 Large and heavy iron key with an unusually complex set of cuts to pass wards.

Key 1238 Bronze. Both side wards and holes to match circular wards. Very heavy construction with a short stem. The bow shows very heavy wear, showing that it was carried pendant style for a long time.

Keys 1252, 1275 Tiny bronze casket keys, somewhat covered with deposits. These do not have much leverage for turning in a lock, and must have acted against very weak springs. Obviously pendant keys.

Long Keys, Warded (Lift Keys)

Long format warded, or lift keys, are one of the least common types, while warded ring keys are relatively abundant. As a reason for this, I can suggest only that ring keys could also be displayed as a type of jewelry. I've shown here several such keys from various sources to illustrate some of the configurations. All keys shown are of bronze.

I'm not at all sure of what type of mechanism was operated by keys 419 and following. I'm assuming, until I find out differently, that they simply insert into a T shaped keyhole and lift up to release a small metal bolt. Seems like a primitive and insecure arrangement. I know of no such bolt having been found. Clearly it does not matter whether the cross bar is flat or cylindrical, but in every case the stem is bent up so that the bar is above the plane of the handle. The reason is not obvious. An example was found at Pompeii (Biasiotti) in tandem with a slide key.

Key 380 At this time there is only this single representative in the collection

British Museum From Guide to the Exhibition. Very complex, deserves to be in the museum

Lux-1 From flikr.com/photos/paul_garland (Luxembourg and Roman museums)

Wright-4A From Wright, Urconium, 1872

Ward Figure 67 From Ward, The Roman Era in Britain). This is the model for the "French latch" key used until fairly recent times.

UKDFD-3080 An example of a very simple iron lift key found in Buckinghamshire. Very little security here.

Key 1347 Very handsome, with a nice overall patina

Key 419 Bronze.

Key 558 Iron with bronze chain

Key 625 Iron

Keys 791, 792 Bronze.

Complex Warded Lift Keys

This is a class of Roman keys that is rare and little understood. I have not found any indications of attempts to explain their usage. I have gathered five illustrations showing four examples with double sets of bits and one single. There are also three items from my own collection.

The keys with a single set of bits as have Culture-1, 386 and 649 would fit into an L-shaped keyhole, as shown in sketch A. The case forms the first ward, and the deep bend avoids it.

I suggest that keys with two sets of bits at right angles were simply the Roman version of high security keys, and may have been used for two different locks, probably adjacent. Sketches B and C. show two keyholes for two separate locks for a strong-box (follow the money!). After all, a chest with two locks with two different mechanisms is a higher security protection for the family's or banker's treasures, I'm sure there were wealthy persons who cared nothing for the cost and wanted the best technology available. The same key would conveniently serve for both by simply rotating it by 90 degrees. Of course, this hypothesis is supported by no physical evidence other than the shapes of the keys, and I know of few surviving lock plates with L-shape keyholes and no provision for hasps. For one example see plate 5071 in the chest lock section.

Sketch D shows an external view of a somewhat more elaborate lock, in which a single key operates a single lock with two mechanisms. This would certainly have been hard to fabricate, but entirely possible for a clever locksmith. I have in fact a lock plate 5249 with a cross shaped keyhole. Its only functions would be for such a lock, or perhaps to add another level of security through deception.

Key 386 An example where the shank detours around a ward before ending in a perpendicular set of bits.

Key 649 Similar design, but much heavier.

Key 681 Very well preserved, smooth brown patina.

Ring Keys

Normal Tumbler
Shank Up Tumbler
Rotary
Folding
Warded

Ring keys are the most abundant and popular type that are collected today. We have been told often enough that Roman ring keys were worn on the finger. It could certainly have been done in most cases, but I think that the ring was primarily a device for hanging. Sometime I must try wearing a ring key for a day. If worn so that the shank and bits were on the outside of the finger, I suspect it would catch on everything and flop around something fierce! If worn on the inside of the finger, I can picture two citizens shaking hands and locking keys!  Or did they shake hands in those days? Don't think so, but they did clasp hands on certain important occasions, as suggested by the rings shown at left. These are dextrarum inuncto, "right hands in union". They are symbolic of a close friendship, and even perhaps Fede or "hands of love" marriage rings (Johns) Many ring keys are known which are too small for any human finger, and some that are obviously decorative rather than functional. I believe that most often, ring keys were hung on thongs around the neck, suspended from a girdle or carried in a belt pouch. There is physical evidence (muzarp) that keys were sometimes attached to a belt, and even a key that was worn on a bronze armlet (Cook)

It would be interesting to know how long the use of the pin tumbler key persisted. There's no doubt much information on this question that I have not yet found.

Many ring keys advertised for sale are listed as "wearable" with a modern ring size given. However, if you should do this, you should be aware that the patina will soon wear off, decreasing the attractiveness and value of the piece. Lots of Roman rings can be found that are quite wearable and do not have this problem.

My classification of keys into "ring" and "long" is pretty arbitrary. From the sequence shown here, it's clear that the length of the shank varies a lot, and certainly as keys become longer, the likelihood of wearing one on a finger becomes smaller.

There may be an organizational scheme for Roman keys somewhere that I haven't yet found, except for Guiraud's classification of ring keys. Therefore, to bring some sort of order into the chaos of ring keys, I've arranged my own in the following categories:

1. Normal tumbler ring, shank in the same plane as the ring

2. Shank up tumbler ring, shank perpendicular to the plane of the ring

3. Rotary ring

4. Folding ring

5. Warded ring

Normal tumbler ring

This is a selection of the ordinary or "standard" ring keys that are available at this time. There may be duplicates somewhere in the world, but each of these is an individual, differing slightly from all the others. Comparison of such keys with bolts that have been found shows that not all the decorative cuts and slots in the bits were used in the mechanism. They were partly for display and prestige.

Keys 258, 216, 256, 254 All are iron

Keys 309, 388 Despite their nondescript appearance, these are rare finds, bimetallic ring keys. 309 is brass/iron and 388 is silver/iron. Much of the iron has been corroded away, but we can see the joints where the metal was poured into the iron bit section. If there were one available in very poor condition, it would be interesting and worth while to section it to determine exactly how the join was made. Nondestructive testing would be preferred, of course. However, I really think key rings that display only stubs where the bits should be are just bimetallics with the iron all gone. But how did they shape that little well in the iron into which the brass or silver was poured?

Key 392 Another composite bronze/iron key, with unusually well preserved iron part, and a nice circular pin design as well.

Key 335 Another iron key, exceptionally well preserved

Key 462 I suppose this and 574 qualify as pin tumbler keys, but must be for a rather simple sort of bolt.

Key 563 Iron

Key 574 Iron

Key 741 Bronze. At first glance, this key looks silly. Why would one build a hanging loop into a key when it could be hung just as it is anyway?  But when you do that and hang it on a cord around your neck, it will lie perpendicular to the body. The added loop allows it to lie flat against the body, which would make it more comfortable to wear. It would, of course make it very uncomfortable to wear on a finger. This feature apparently was not very popular, since I have never seen another example.

Key 1106 Very odd to have a single bit, but I see no particular disadvantage.

Shank up tumbler ring

These seem to have been less popular, judging from the number now available. Why? If they were actually worn on a finger, they would lie flat and would be much less awkward. I believe that what I refer to as "normal tumbler" ring keys were not worn on the finger, but were suspended or carried.

Key 281 Very tiny, gold plated. No idea why such a thing would be made!

Key 396 This was represented as a child's ring key because of the small diameter, 0.565".

Key 504 Iron

Rotary ring

Here's an interesting sketch of how this type of key would have been used (Quennell).

Key 302 Very attractive specimen, with a faceted band.

Key 313 Decorated with cast-in indentations.

Keys 201, 211, 232, 250, 292, 293, 296, 365, 352

Key 308 This is very delicate and was probably a piece of jewelry rather than for serious use.

Keys 352, 377 Identical keys of silver & bronze, respectively. Ornamental, and I think unlikely to be useful.

Key 612 Well-preserved iron key with a very small pin hole.

Key 624 Variety of 232

Key 632 More complex version of 313

Key 647 Iron with shank and ring coplanar. This type seems not so common. Could note be worn comfortably on a finger.

Key 1303 This is a delightful specimen. It's cheap! Only the stem & bits are cast. The band is cut from thin sheet and crudely attached to the cast section with rivets.

Key 1389 Sturdy iron, in pretty good condition

Folding ring

All the Byzantine ring keys shown from the Menil collection (Vikan, 1980) are folding. However, not all folding ring keys are Byzantine. Examples have been found at Pompeii, including that by Price shown at left.

I must agree with most commentators that the purpose of folding was convenience in wearing on a finger, if the owner elected to do so. However, I personally feel that a hinged ring flopping around on one's finger would be a considerable inconvenience, and I don't think the question is settled yet. Nearly all folding keys are for rotary mechanisms, and all but 247 are also barrel keys. I have only seen a single example of a folding key for a pin tumbler mechanism.

The connection of shaft to ring was made by simply crimping the pre-cast ends of the shaft over the ring. Usually the seam is still visible. In some cases, such as 418, the ends don't even meet. Crimping was probably done hot.

Keys 230, 247 Two of the most elaborate ring keys I have are also folding. This is in accord with the Byzantine style.

Key 230 origin not stated.

Key 247 is from "the Balkans"

Key 253 is iron and quite plain. Alleged from Syria

Key 266 also alleged to have been found in Syria

Key 338 is also iron, but sufficiently corroded that it will never fold again. Origin not stated

Key 347 is ideally designed for suspension and impossible to wear as a ring. There would have been nothing to gain by the folding feature and I think in this case it was fashionable rather than useful. I suggest that since such keys were normally folding at the time, this one was made that way by custom rather than for usefulness.

Key 353 is from Lincolnshire, which would make a Byzantine origin unlikely, though not impossible. The outer ring surface is octagonal. Iron.

Key 390 This is really getting a bit too large to wear on a finger, I think

Key 418 The ends of the shaft are marked to simulate a hand with fingers grasping the ring. Remarkably, there are no shoulders on this ring to keep the rest of the key from sliding around it.

Key 431

Key 465

Key 555 I suppose that deep groove in the bit is to pass a keyhole ward, just as with many almost-modern locks.

Key 793

Key 855 The very fancy bow and those tiny stubs for bits lead me to believe this was made for display rather than actual use

Key 1159 Iron and much corroded. Note that the pinning configuration is different from any other: oversize flanges on the pin and fastened farther down on the key stem.

Warded ring

Warded ring keys are supremely attractive to collectors because of the variety of intricate designs. Here again, I suspect that these were to some degree prestige items, and that not all that maze-like metal area was functional. They have been called "matron keys", but I'm not yet convinced. (see W. Jones and S. Bury)

Key 233 This is the most ornate of warded ring keys that I've seen, and the only one to bear an inscription (inverted in this image, I think). I'm embarrassed to admit that I cannot translate it Anyone?

Key 201 A bit more elaborate than most, but evidently had an accident just before being discarded.

Keys 267, 333 Of course one is tempted to think of these as Christian symbol rings, but they're attractive just as designs.

Keys 345, 346 A little more decoration than normal

Key 364 Very odd design; I think made for decoration rather than function.

Key 438 This key is so delicate that I'm convinced it was meant for an ornament, not actual use in a lock.

Key 520

Key 525 An unusually elaborate design, perhaps of a cart or carriage wheel.

Key 534 The more nearly unique an artifact is, the more willing we are to overlook defects! The complexity and dual key sections of this one suggest to me that it served a symbolic or decorative purpose, rather than a functional one.

Key 539 Design variations in this type of key are seemingly endless. This one suggests waves?

Key 546 Unusually long for this type of key.

Key 547 Another with a wavy top, like 539

Key 550 Similar to 244

Key 551

Key 561 Much like 239, but with decoration.

Key 564

Key 567 I think of this one as a figural, since it looks to me like a face with a wide open mouth.

Key 579 Unusually high crest. It's not possible to tell what part of the bit actually operated the mechanism.

Key 584 Another key of sufficient complexity that it was surely worn as just a piece of jewelry. Don't think a ward system for such a lock would be very reliable.

Key 614

Key 621 The long shank would make for a thicker lock, and perhaps a bit more difficult to pick?

Key 623 Silver. The band is worn very thin. One of the few keys of the type that is asymmetric.

Key 659 Perhaps the simplest design of all, no wards.

Key 660 Distinguished by an unusually long "neck."

Key 685 Somewhat more ornate than usual, with decorations

Key 688 The most striking feature is that curious little "tail". I have no idea what its purpose was, if any. Probably just a decoration.

Key 729 Customer preference was evidently about evenly divided between narrow and thick band. Perhaps it was gender related.

Key 742

Key 761 From the southern Balkans. Unusual and pleasing design. There must not have been very many of the same design made at one time, since customers would likely prefer a unique pattern. For security or for vanity, depending on its purpose.

Key 771 Somewhat more decorative than most. The seller said it was "outstanding."

Key 896 Similar to 685 and 688

Key 942 2nd century CE

Key 992 Nice patina, 17 mm

Key 1005 This "maze" design is mounted on an especially broad but thin band.

Key 1066 Quite an unusual design, somewhat resembles a tulip

key 1179

Key 1192

Key 1121 I'm sure the artisan had fun with this whimsical design

Key 1224

Key 1225

Key 1292

Key 1302

Key 1309 Certainly a minimalist design!

Key 1377 Could be for a Christian lock, but I think not.

Key 1382

Key 1385

Key 1416

Padlock Slide Keys

Slide keys were used to compress the springs in padlocks with long cases and barbed spring mechanisms. Those in this collection are nearly all of iron. Iron slide keys are surprisingly rare, no doubt because of corrosion in the ground. They are entirely functional: undecorated and crudely made, with a simple form that is little different from those used in modern times. Illustrations are rarely found in the literature. Shown here is an example found at Uriconium, in Shropshire (Wright). I suppose the center split is to pass a ward.

Key 361 As has been pointed out earlier in the discussion of padlocks, this key is eminently suited for opening a lock with a keyhole and open slot in the top. The right angle is necessary because a vertical key shaft would be blocked by the shackle.

Key 362 Made for a keyhole at the rear end of the lock. This was forged from a strip of iron, showing evidence of folding over at the suspension hole and in the front section of the shaft. The I-shaped front end was more carefully made, probably by filing.

Key 373 This was purchased as a roman tool, and so it is, a tool for opening a barbed spring padlock. The lock must have been unusual though, very long and narrow with a relatively small assembly.

Keys 384, 391 The shapes of these keys show that there were wards to be bypassed.

Key 393 This is a special kind of slide key, used for a slave shackle. See Restraints section for another example.

Key 450 Interesting example of the variability in workmanship in making the same product. This is much like 362, except for the straight shank and the more careful finishing work in folding and forging to make the bow.

Key 473 The most elaborate example found so far, showing a complex system of wards.

Key 482 Curious iron slide key with a thick round shank and delicate end pieces to compress the springs. Those slender end fittings are like the bronze Viking key 425, made some 800 years later. It's probably not a coincidence, since the Vikings are said to have borrowed from Roman designs.

Key 496 The status of keys of this complex pattern is a little unclear to me. Sales are uncommon, but they have been sold as Byzantine or Roman. The image Boetzkes-1 is listed by Boetzkes as 1st-2nd c Roman. A fine selection of similar keys is presented in the Pankofer collection. The reservations I have involve the fact that  Tibetan keys of recent manufacture have very similar and very distinctive designs. I show below such a key with the lock it fits. This is not so different from my own lock 5245, for example, so it may all be true. An even more elaborate key of this type is shown later in Key 684. Note in the image at left below the clever use of a slot cut in the spring itself as a ward.

Key 512 For a two-spring side by side arrangement. The smith cared about this one to give it a little decoration of scored lines, which is unusual for this type of key.

Key 519 Flattened grip and obviously for a bottom key slide

Key 527 At first glance, this would seem to be for a padlock with a screw key mechanism. However, the interrupted thread shows that it is actually a padlock slide key. The end view shows that there is a clear path for the springs to follow as the key is pushed forward. The helical arrangement may be to allow the key to rotate past wards, either at the keyhole or elsewhere. This is a clever and very unusual arrangement.

I am uncertain about the date and origin of this key. Consider the widely-quoted passage from Webster: "Contemporary with the smokehouse padlock and originating in the Slavic areas of Europe, the 'screw key' padlocks opened with a helical key that was threaded into the keyhole. The key pulled the locking bolt open against a strong spring."

A number of such keys have been found in the Crimea, and are thought to be Kievan Rus in origin. Certainly helical spring padlocks have been found in 13th century Novgorod. There is likely other historical information elsewhere that I have not yet found. So far, it appears that such keys are not Roman or Byzantine.

Key 530 Tiny and elegant in bronze

Key 535 An exotic specimen! Don't know what that side arm is for, but I suppose it could be a positioning guide.

Key 545 Another small key for an obviously small padlock, somewhat similar to keys 473 and 482 with the space in the center.

Key 548 The rectangular side notch is suitable for compressing a single spring, such as that shown by Thompson. Presumably the irregular notch on the other side is to pass a ward.

Key 556 For an assembly of one double spring in the center and two single sprigs, one on each side.

Key 562

Key 565 Complex design, for a locking piece with multiple sets of barbed springs. High security, for this type of padlock.

Key 569 Very much like Key 562 except more delicate. I suppose the wide expansion in the shaft is decorative, since although possible, it doesn't seem reasonable to have a ward in that position.

Key 626 Somewhat like Key 391, but with a stronger wedge shaped handle and round bow. Alleged Byzantine.

Key 658 Elegant little Roman bronze key, for a tiny slide key padlock. This would be a luxury item, obviously designed to be worn on a cord or chain around the neck.

Key 668 Byzantine iron, from the former Yugoslavia region.

Key 684 An offset this great suggests a lock with a side slot.

Key 686 Very elaborate late Roman or early Byzantine. Found at a Romano/Byzantine site in the former Yugoslavia. See the commentary after 496. This one has a specially designed suspension tab which is now rusted in place.

Key 699 Slightly simpler design at the end.

Key 781 Bronze push or slide keys are uncommon. I think this is because padlocks as a rule are utilitarian, and required to simply be secure and strong. The few bronze keys that come along are for small padlocks, used for small boxes, caskets, etc. This particular example is also one of the very few I have seen with no hole for suspension.

Key 1047 Wide area forged in the center probably makes it easier to use. It's odd that the bits are just a little off-center.

Key 1164 The curious smooth bend is no doubt necessary to pass an external ward or two.

Key 1167 Tiny, elegant, decorative and more complex than it really needs to be, this little bronze push key was likely used for milady's jewelry casket.

Votive Keys

The following passage (LEG III AVG) describes another usage: "rings for fingers and thumbs were worn by men and women, sometimes several at a time. They were made from gold, silver, bronze, iron, lead or glass." A working key made of lead is so absurd that it guarantees some non-functional use. I can do no better than reprint a quote from Westropp; "Lead rings, set with intagli, of early date and good work are sometimes to be met with, but they are exceedingly rare. It is evident that these leaden rings, Mr. King writes, in their time passed for massy gold, a deception favored by their weight and ductility, and not to be easily detected when encased in a thick envelope of gold leaf, of which they often retain the trace". Another reference to the finding of a lead key is in Curlesnewstead, chapter 15. The examples in this collection show no trace of gilding.

A more likely use for a lead key is as a votive object. It is known that many ordinary articles were reproduced in lead for use as votive offerings, usually in miniature. These include axes, mirrors, plaques, furniture, amphora, figurines, cups, etc. I suggest that the keys shown here were made for this purpose. As remarked in the introduction, there was no lack of gods to whom one might appeal for safety and security.

A specific use of the votive key is described by Resco (tfahr.org). "The key is such an offering, symbolizing a safe opening of the womb and protection by the goddess during childbirth. This practice has been witnessed by Festus, a second century AD Roman grammarian, who wrote 'It was common for women to donate a key to ensure an easy childbirth' Such an offering would have been made to Juno, the goddess of delivery and birth, or perhaps to Carmenta, also goddess of childbirth and protector of mothers and children.

Key 336 Ring style. The bitting has been broken off, apparently during excavation. There is cracking and splitting and many pits filled with lead oxide, but the survival is pretty good.

Key 472 Rotary. I found faint traces of cast-in decoration at one spot.

Key 513 Pin tumbler style lead key.

Key 542 I suppose this would be for a supplicant who was wealthy or had a very important invocation, or both. It's not evident who the heads were intended to represent

Key 694 This is a pretty good representation in lead of a standard bronze key

Key 1306 Pin tumbler ring key, slightly bent but pretty good, considering


Celtic Keys

The Celts did use primitive locks, bolts and keys, but not many have turned up. However, it is entirely possible that some have been wrongly attributed as Roman, I have not seen enough to see any systematic differences.

Key 372 Very simple key with a single tooth

Key 1085 Sensibly made, a traditional door key. Found in central Europe and alleged to date from 300 B.C.E.

Key 1407 Alleged to be Celtic: may be so, but I have no idea how it would function.

Medieval Keys


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