Introduction: A Sigillographer’s Life for Me

British lead seal from a Wakefield merchant, 18th century, Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection. Photo C. Davis

British lead seal from a Wakefield merchant, 18th century, Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection. Photo C. Davis

Hi there, I’m Cathrine Davis! I’m a PhD student in the Anthropology department here at William & Mary under the direction of Audrey Horning, and I specialize in Historical Archaeology. Though I am still early in my degree, I have a solid direction to my dissertation research because it is building on research that I have been expanding since my undergraduate years involving the mise en valeur of a largely misunderstood and overlooked artifact type. My research focuses on lead seals, also often called lead cloth seals or bale seals (though this last term has proven to be somewhat of a misnomer). These are small singular or composite lead (Pb) disks that range in size from under 1cm to 4cm in diameter. These seals were applied to various trade goods (usually textiles, in my experience) and stamped with various motifs in order to provide information about inspection, taxation, quality, origin, and ownership. Though lead seals have been in use since the Roman period and are still used today in shipping and industrial applications, my research focuses on seals from the 17th and 18th centuries, in particular those found at French sites in North America. Most of the material I have worked with dates from the mid seventeenth century (about 1660) through the end of French administration in North America (1763, officially), and occasionally beyond.

My interest in seals from French sites in North America stems from a background in the archaeology of the fur trade and French colonial archaeology. The very first excavation I was involved in was at a 17th and 18th-century mission, fort, and trading post in southwest Michigan, not far from my hometown. This site, Fort St. Joseph (in Niles, MI), has yielded substantial information concerning French presence in the Great Lakes Region, and you can learn more about it through this link: https://wmich.edu/fortstjoseph. My undergraduate thesis focused on the identification of lead seals found at Fort St. Joseph and attempted to link seals to the specific types of cloth that they might have once marked in order to better understand textile consumption at the site.
A view of Frédéric Gate at Fortress Louisbourg NHS

A view of Frédéric Gate at Fortress Louisbourg NHS

My MA research closely followed the ideas and questions posed in my undergraduate thesis, but expanded to include two other French sites, Fort Carillon (now known as Fort Ticonderoga (Ticonderoga, NY) and Fortress Louisbourg (Louisbourg, NS) in a comparative analysis of consumption. In choosing these three sites I expected to see clear differences in the lead seal evidence revealing varying types of textiles and clothing present at each site reflecting differences in purpose (trade, military defense, entrepôt), geographic placement (Great Lakes, Lake Champlain corridor, Atlantic coast), and population type (Native Americans/French traders and settlers, large French military force, large and wealthy civilian population). Though some differences were apparent and specific historical textiles mentioned in the documentary record were represented by the lead seals, I found that the most valuable results of my research were the deeper stories revealed by the seals themselves and the similarities between the lead seals from each site. Certain seals, once identified, opened gateways to understanding their French origins and the people involved in the production and importation of textiles to New France. Even more intriguingly, in some cases, seals from the same location or the same merchant family were found at each site, showing that even these very different sites were all consuming goods provided by the same suppliers.

A list of goods provided by the Mariette brothers loaded aboard a ship at Rochefort bound for Québec, 1747. BanQ-Québec, fonds C11A.

A list of goods provided by the Mariette brothers loaded aboard a ship at Rochefort bound for Québec, 1747. BanQ-Québec, fonds C11A.

With these discoveries still fresh in my mind, I have come to William & Mary seeking guidance and new routes to understanding the connections running throughout the French Atlantic. What is clear to me is that in order to understand these networks, I must learn more about the people that created and maintained them, in particular the nature of social connections between French merchants, producers, importers, colonial procurators (legal representatives of French merchants abroad), and consumers. Since my research has shown that the majority of lead seals represent origins in southern France, that is where I have decided to focus my dissertation research. The Mariette family, a prominent dynasty of Canada merchants (négociants du Canada) that lived in Montauban, France, are a starting point for my dissertation research. Seals of the Mariette family have appeared at nearly every French site in northern North America- Louisbourg, Québec City, Montréal, Fort Ticonderoga, Fort St. Joseph, Fort Michilimackinac, Fort Ouiatenon- and many more. It is clear that their products spread far and wide within New France, but how did they achieve such influence and how did they work with those around them to meet the needs of consumers half a world away? How did they construct trade networks through social interaction? Using various seals of the Mariette family as my guide, I turn to France for answers. My voyage to France this summer consisted of travel not only to Montauban, but Toulouse, Bordeaux, Rochefort, and La Rochelle, all places with a connection to the Mariettes’ business as revealed by lead seals. Visiting all of these towns in just two short weeks gave me a taste of what leads I can follow in each place, and will help me plan future research abroad. In the following blogs I will immerse the reader in my thoughts and experiences as I familiarize myself with these places and the people of their past. I hope the reader will delight in the changing shape of my research as a result of my travels, graciously funded in part by the Charles Center Summer Research Grant.

Bonne lecture,

-Cathrine

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