(Shutterstock)Wax seals were the modern-day signatures of the medieval period and essential for legal and administrative life. Now over 800 years later, the seals are providing scientists with valuable statistical information about fingerprinting techniques, and insights into the lives of the people that left them behind.

By examining over 1,500 unique seals and parchments, researchers are hoping to put together a massive database of antiquated palm, thumb and fingerprints that they say is important in future forensic studies about the value of print identification.

During a pilot project, usable prints were discovered on 37 percent of the materials examined, and traditional print recognition techniques showed that the fingerprints from specific individuals showed up on more than one document.  

Using a Foster & Freeman Crime Lite Imager, researchers digitally imaged the prints then examined them with an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), which uses algorithms to analyze the uploaded data. Here’s what researchers hope to discover:

Fingerprint persistence

The prints on 800-year-old documents make up a significant pool of information from a period long before modern fingerprinting became available.

This information could provide insights into how fingerprints may or may not change over time, or withstand the test of time. If researchers can find usable latent prints on the parchments, then they might learn more about the overall evidentiary value of timeworn prints.

Uniqueness of prints

Fingerprints have only been in use for the past 100 years meaning scientific evidence is relatively recent. Although the use of fingerprints is widely accepted, insights into past populations could provide strong evidence regarding uniqueness.

Specifically, forensic scientists might be able to glean important information about the uniqueness of prints in certain populations—useful in determining the likelihood of finding the same prints on two different people today.

While the prints came from a different demographic and time period, the statistical information collected might still be valuable in learning about fingerprint identification techniques as a science, according to researchers.

Historical context

The research will also provide clues into the lives of 14th century British life. During the time period, wax stamps were widely used by members of all social classes, and by people of all walks of life.

Researchers even hope to find examples of fraud, and could crack some of oldest cold cases on record.

The three-year long project is headed by the University of Lincoln in England and will cost just under $100,000 USD, according to the Arts and Humanities Research Council