A forensic and historical investigation of fingerprints on medieval seals using documents held in Lincoln Cathedral, Exeter Cathedral, Hereford Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the National Library of Wales.

Medieval seals were the equivalent of modern-day signatures in legal terms, but unlike signatures, the combination of image and text enabled their owners to represent themselves in a certain way. By the fourteenth century men and women across society owned and used seal matrices; some were bespoke and some bought off the shelf – but all were necessary to validate any legal document with which the seal’s owner was connected.

The Imprint Project will merge cutting-edge forensic techniques with traditional historical investigation to analyse the fingerprints and palm prints found on the back of wax seals, leading to new discoveries about social constructs and legal practices of the time, as well as provide data which will help current identity science experts. Using specialist cameras operated by trained researchers, the fingerprints from around 1,500 seals will be logged on an online database. Those that are viable with be analysed using both tradition methods and forensic software.

From a historical perspective, Imprint aims to reveal more about medieval social networks and the bureaucracies and protocols behind authentication and security in medieval England. The results will help to answer questions about administrative, iconographic and legal changes and the ‘performative act of sealing’, and how this reflected social and legal relationships.

On the forensics side, the study will contribute important information to current debates in forensics, such as the uniqueness of fingerprints. Through comparing the fingerprints of different demographics at different times – medieval prints and ones from modern society – important statistical information can be gleaned. This information can be built into data regarding the likelihood ratios of finding the same prints on two different people to help advance finger mark identification as a science.

The project will work across five centres: Lincoln Cathedral, Exeter Cathedral, Hereford Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the National Library of Wales.


Duration: 2016 – 2018

Project Team

  • Dr Philippa Hoskin (Principal Investigator – University of Lincoln)
  • Dr Elizabeth New (Co-Investigator – Aberystwyth University)
  • Dr Hollie Morgan (Research Associate – University of Lincoln)
  • Dr Fergus Oakes (Research Associate – Aberystwyth University)
  • Jamie McLaughlin (Developer – The Digital Humanities Institute)
  • Forensic Focus Limited