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date: 10 December 2018


Seals played an important part in ancient life, taking the place of the modern signature on documents and, to some extent, of keys and locks. The materials for sealings were lead and wax for documents; in commerce a lump of clay was commonly pressed down over the cordage. In Roman times small seal-cases were frequently employed to protect the impression from damage. The seals themselves were generally of stone or metal, sometimes of ivory, glass, and other materials; some early seals, pierced by string holes, were worn round the neck or wrist, but ancient seals were frequently worn as signet rings.

The use of seals began in neolithic times in Greece and they were in common use in EH. Seals of ivory, hard stones, and precious metals were made in Crete where they appear in EM II; the two main types were the stamp and the cylinder seal; the finest Minoan and Mycenaean seals were cut in hard stone and precious metal. The techniques of cutting stone seals were revived in the later geometric period, the most notable series being the so-called Island Gems; hard stones—chalcedony, cornelian, rock crystal, and others—were used again from the middle of the 6th cent. The scarab form which had been popular in Egypt from the ninth dynasty was adopted in Archaic Greece and the scaraboid was the commonest form in the 5th cent. Gold signet rings were also popular.

The principal device on ancient seals was usually pictorial—a favourite deity, a mythical hero, animals, and later, portraits. The seal devices of several prominent men of Roman times are known; Augustus first used a sphinx and later a portrait of Alexander (3) the Great.

Greek cities possessed civic seals, for public documents or public property; the Romans utilized a magistrate's personal seal. See archives; sphragis (for literary signatures).


P. Zazoff, Die Antiken Gemmen (1983).Find this resource:

J. Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings (1970).Find this resource:

V. Chapot, C. Daremberg and E. Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines d'après les textes et les monuments (1877–1919), under ‘signum’.Find this resource:

E. Dusinberre, Gordion Seals and Sealings (2005).Find this resource:

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