History through keys, padlocks and locks in antiquity

A visit to the Archaeological Museum of Albano Laziale reveals many small surprises from a careful look at unusual details such as those on ancient keys, padlocks and locks from antiquity.

In ancient Rome there were no banks and money, in gold and silver, was usually kept at home in real safes. These were extremely robust and capacious boxes, which could hold both coins and precious objects.

Usually the boxes were placed in the halls, in full view, in order to promote the economic opulence of the owner of the home.

The inviolability of these forerunners of modern safes was ensured by one or more complex locks with keys, from which the owner was rarely separated except to entrust them to a ‘portiarius’, charged with carrying them wherever his master was going.

In order to facilitate transport, the keys were made in bronze and shaped in an elaborate manner, and these were also seals used as hot stamps on the wax. They were similar to a ring, with a small shaped protrusion and an engraving that served as the seal and served to authenticate important documents.

In the most important and richest families, at the time of the wedding the husband invited the bride to share both the keys and the seal. This gesture represented a symbol of trust that the spouse placed in the administrative abilities of his wife.

The locking devices, in reality, were born in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BC, as evidenced by the findings in this sense in the temple of Sargon in Khorsabad. In the same period this lock appeared in Egypt and from there spread throughout the Mediterranean.

This lock was composed of two parts, one fixed to the cuff and the other to the door. When the latter was fastened, the two parts interlocked with each other and the vertical pins prevented reopening. Release was obtained by inserting into a slot in the lock a lever provided with fixed pins with the same arrangement of the calipers.

This lock was perfected, a millennium later, in Greece. A device made entirely of metal was created with a movable bolt which had numerous holes in the center which followed a precise geometry. Above the bolt were falling pins arranged with the same geometry.

When the bolt, shifting, made the first pin coincide with the others, these descended into their holes locking it. To open the lock, a key similar to a comb was used, with the pins pointing upwards, equal to the previous ones in number and geometry.

The Roman lock, instead, began to spread a few centuries before our era and the key that opened and closed it was similar to that of the old houses. Like this, it worked by rotation thanks to an antagonist spring of highly elastic steel.

This lock was made by a real specialist: the ‘magister clavarius’.

Perhaps it was the one of these masters who ultimately invented the spring that defined the double-thrust key and that released the locks from the need for vertical assembly, and so they could also be adapted to coffers and safes, true forerunners of our padlocks.

The Roman lock of the Imperial age is quintessentially the one known to have a translation key, with a “gamma” letter shaped patch. Numerous specimens have been found of this lock, both in Pompeii and in Herculaneum.

But the Romans, who traveled often, also used a large number of tiny portable locks, known as padlocks, whose production survived to this day. Even the lock was operated – as of today – by a key with the help of a spring.

The bronze keys were extremely beautiful. Bronze was used for the casting in the composition of 85 percent of copper and 15 percent of tin. The technology used was that of lost wax casting.

The handles were usually geometric, zoomorphic or volute-shaped. The combs were often more elaborate than those of the iron keys and were composed of many teeth with the addition, often, of one or two lateral complications.

It must be remembered that the internal rooms of the Roman houses had no doors. There was a sturdy iron door that protected the safe, but nothing else.