Clay tablets from the ancient Babylonian Empire, almost 4,000 years ago, depict keys.
The Greek word kleis is the root of the French clef. In Ancient Greece, keys were used for temple locks and Spartan locks. Women carried the angular bronze keys on one shoulder. One literary source, Homer, speaks of the key to Odysseus’s storeroom. The Greeks are said to have invented the keyhole, while the Romans refined it.
Early Roman keys possessed technical finesse and elegance. They were primarily status symbols for those who had property to protect. Some keys also reflect the architecture of the day, made not only to fit into a lock, but also to look like the door the lock is in.
Archaeologists have found many bronze and iron keys in Saalburg, the citadel at the Roman Limes, built to hold off the barbarian invasions. Today Saalburg is a museum 30 km north of Frankfurt am Main in Germany.
Another Roman innovation is the tiny key included in a finger ring. Women used keys like this for their jewelry boxes.
European keys in the 6th–9th centuries generally reflect the dominant styles of the era, which makes it relatively easy to determine their age even without access to their locks. Merovingian keys (about 500-750) are more rough-hewn than their predecessors, revealing a regression in craftsmanship. Carolingian keys (about 750-960) usually have a bow shaped like a cross, a bishop’s miter, or other religious symbols.
Published 23 Nov 2007
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