Ancient padlocks

Roman heritage
Padlocks are a Roman invention from about the third century AD, which spread rapidly throughout the empire, but also beyond its borders. Countless trade caravans passed through Persia, including the over 2200-year-old caravan route dubbed the Silk Road by German geography professor Ferdinand von Richthofen in the late 19th century. The Silk Road competed with naval routes as one of the key links providing cultural contact between all the peoples along the way between Europe and Asia. The Silk Road stretched from the eastern part of the Mediterranean, through Baghdad, Hamadan, Kashi (Kashgar), Minghoshan (Dunhuang) and Xi’an (Chang’an) in China. But there were also other old trade routes from the north that connected with the Silk Road, which branched off in Persia and also continued east towards the Indian states and beyond.

The geographical location of Persia, halfway between Europe, India and China, made it an early hub of trade and technological developments. The earliest padlocks were made in the latter part of the Sassanian cultural era (224–637 AD).

Bronze had been manufactured in Persia for centuries – in fact, copper was being forged as early as 6000 BC in the mountainous Luristan in the west, near Iraq. With lots of fuel from the forests and ready access to a rich supply of copper ore, metal production was practically a given. Archaeological finds from around 4000 BC show that copper was being cast at that time. Later cultures passed along the knowledge of processing copper and bronze.

In Iranian folk legend, the special powers of locks protect against evil and malevolent powers. People there have always prioritized padlocks even as door locks, rather than locks mounted on the doors, and a large proportion of the locks are made of bronze.

Padlocks were made according to the old artisanal traditions even into the 20th century. After forging or casting, the surface of the bronze was filed, sanded and polished, and possibly engraved for a relief effect. The products could be even more decorated with engraving or embellishment with a punch or chisel. There are even examples of incrusted locks, where brass, silver or gold is hammered into the design and heated to seal it in place. Designs could also vary; a locksmith could collaborate with a bronze caster, who cast certain parts of the lock.

Locksmiths worked in the cities, where they had their biggest market. Traditionally they sold their wares in bazaars, and in many cases they made their locks on-site or nearby. Later, as cheap domestic and imported machine-made locks began to compete and take over the market, the old locks fell out of use, along with the old craft.

Making padlocks in the shape of animals is an ancient tradition in Iran/Persia, India, Nepal and China, dating back long before the Common Era. Animals with long tails – lions, horses, rats and scorpions – were most suited to padlocks, where the tail became the ring shackle, combined with a ward spring mechanism. The Iranians developed a wide range of animal shapes, sometimes with very playful solutions.

As far back as the Sassanians, everyday utility items were decorated in textiles, stone, ceramics and metal. Many of them featured mythical beasts, winged horses, elephants, deer, camels, lions, sheep, goats, birds and a wide variety of plant motifs, including many flowers.
This applied to padlocks as well, into the 20th century. Even animal-shaped locks were decorated. We see regional differences; for example, the elegantly designed padlocks from Isfahan. Persian/Islamic architecture also influenced the decor of the padlocks.

The technological basis for manufacturing padlocks came from the west, from the Romans, via Byzantine trade connections. The Roman Empire was well matched by its Sassanian counterpart, and the two exchanged various influences. Padlocks spread from Persia east to other parts of Asia. The country was later influenced by contact with other Western European centers of trade.

The two earliest and most common lock mechanisms are ward springs and screw locks. Later came locks with turning keys.