Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: Seals and Sealings
The magic of sealsApplicationsAn administrative toolSeal shapesMarkings

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Seals and Sealings

    Since pre-historic times seals were used as proof of identity and authenticity [5], for sealing things, be they doors, pottery or anything one wanted to remain closed or inaccessible [6], for marking property one wanted to make sure one's rights over it would be respected [7]. The concept of the seal was apparently introduced from Mesopotamia and was at first a privilege of the upper classes. This early nobility were the sahu (saH.w), people who had been granted the right by the king to bear a seal [4].

The magic of seals

    Clay sealingMeans for physically preventing access, such as locks and keys, were known since the second millennium BCE, but the technology was rudimentary and not very effective. One had therefore to rely on the physical presence of a keeper or on the force of moral persuasion seals as magical objects seem to have embodied.

27th dynasty clay sealing. The underside bears imprint marks of string and papyrus
Source:Petrie Museum [1], UC58384

But apparently it was always best not to put too much faith in honesty and respectfulness. Bu-teh-Imen wrote to the viceroy of Kush General Piankh:
Behold, youy have written me these words: Open a (burial) place among the tombs of our forefathers and protect its seal until my return...
Reign of Ramses XI [8]
    The consequence of illegally breaking a seal was punishment by the authorities if one was caught. But even if the crime remained undetected one would incur the wrath of the gods, be one mortal or god. In the papyrus of Imhotep, son of Pshentohe, Seth was accused of many misdeeds, among them the breaking of a seal:
You have opened the secret chest which is in Heliopolis in order to see what was in it, (although) it had been sealed with the seal of the 77 deities...Re will smite (you on) your head, he will destroy your ba.
Ptolemaic period XI [9]
    Seals were often worn as amulets for ptotection and conferred some of their magical properties to the sealings. The act of sealing–or breaking a seal–was a moment of solemnity and truth, and its participants were expected to be in a proper frame of mind:
do not cheat at the time of sealing
The Instruction of the Insinger papyrus
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.206


    Easily broken, mud seals did not keep unauthorized persons out, but, being stamped with individual markings, they were difficult to reproduce and represented an obstacle to hiding attempts at tampering. The doors of temple sanctuaries were sealed, the seal only to be broken by priests performing the appropriate rites. On his victory stela Piye describes how he went to behold the sun-god Re:
Mounting the stairs to the great window to view Re in the Pyramidion House. The king stood by himself alone. Breaking the seals of the bolts, opening the doors; viewing his father Re in the holy Pyramidion House. [adorning (?)] the morning-bark of Re and the evening-bark of Atum. Closing the doors, applying the clay, sealing with the king's own seal, and instructing the priests: "I have inspected the seal. No other king who may arise shall enter here."
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.77
    Papyrus documents, rolled into a coil and tied with string were protected by seals, as the undersides of many clay sealings which bear imprints of papyrus and string, prove.
Clay stopper

Unadorned clay stopper, 8 cm dia.
UC69649, Petrie Museum website [1]

    Pots and jars containing food stuffs, such as honey or wine which might spoil if they were left open, were sealed. Often a piece of cloth was placed over the opening of the jar, to prevent the clay plug from falling in. At times a second piece of fabric covered the seal.[10] The seals often bore short descriptions of the contents of the container and a date or the name of the bottler. At times marks were also impressed into objects such as mud bricks.
    Seals were also applied to documents as a means of authentication or proof of ownership. Mehy, son of the fifth dynasty vizier Senedjemib, wrote in the tomb of his father:
Then his majesty caused decrees to be sealed [with (?)] the seal of writings.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 274

An administrative tool

    Official correspondence of importance was not just transmitted by persons of confidence such as ambassadors or royal emissaries, but were stamped with the king's seal. A clay seal of Shabaka was found in the ancient archives of the Assyrian city of Nimrud (the biblical Calah), where it had apparently fallen off an official Egyptian document. [2]
    The person in charge of the royal seal wielded great power. He was at the very top of the administration, trusted like few others since he had the means to authenticate decrees. Tjetji served as the royal seal-bearer under Intef II:
His real and favorite servant , having an advanced seat in the house of his lord, great and favorite official, knowing the private affairs of his lord, following him at all his goings, [great (?)] hearted [///] in very truth, head of the grandees of the palace, in charge of the seal in the privy office, one whom the lord trusted more than the grandees, who delighted the heart of Horus with that which he desired, favorite of his lord, his beloved, chief treasurer, in charge of the privy office which his lord loved, chief treasurer, first under the king, the revered Thethi....
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 423C
    Most states try to control access to information, the ancient Egyptian administration did so, as many still do today, with a well-developed bureaucracy:
As for any writing sent [[by the vizier (?)] to] any hall, being those which are not confidential, it shall be taken to him together with the documents of the keepers thereof under seal of the (sDm.w) officers, and the scribes thereof after them; then he shall open it; then after he has seen it, it shall return to its place, sealed with the seal of the vizier. (But) if he furthermore ask for a confidential writing, then let it not be taken by the keepers thereof.
Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 688
    By putting his seal on a document such as a will, an official gave the state's approval to its contents. Rekhmire, enumerating a vizier's duties and privileges, reminds his successors:
Every property list is brought to him (i.e. the vizier); it is he who seals it.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 684

Seal shapes and materials

    Seals took on different shapes: cylinders which were rolled over the wet clay, buttons, scarabs and rings which were impressed into it. The cylinders and buttons were often pierced so that a piece of string could be threaded through the hole and they could be worn around the neck.

Seals Seals top row from left to right:
Broken steatite seal, feathers and cartouche, New Kingdom, UC11127
Faience ring (not necessarily used as a seal), carrying the name of Nebmaatre, UC12365
Bottom row, from left to right:
Hippopotamus ivory cylinder seal, Naqada I, UC10799
Frog shaped faience seal, bearing the nfr hieroglyph, Amarna Period, UC1176
Faience button seal, New Kingdom, UC11137
Glass seal, inscribed Nebmaatre on one face, ruler of Thebes on the other, UC12353
Source: Petrie Museum website [1]

Seals were made of many different materials. The great Harris papyrus mentions among others:
Variously costly stones: seals as pendants - 62
Rock crystal: seals - 1,550
Wrought wood: seals - 31
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 233-4
and the Karnak stela of Ahmose I lists among the presents given to Amen-Re: seals of gold. Metal signet rings became ever more popular, but they never completely replaced other forms of seals.


    Their markings ranged from simple geometrical patterns and drawings to hieroglyphic inscriptions.
  • Seals Abstract patterns (used mostly during the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period)
    Clay sealings with geometrical patterns
    left: UC8430, right: UC8323 - Petrie Museum website [1]
  • Genealogy seals, The Archaeology of Early Egypt: Social Transformations in North-East Africa, C. 10,000 to 2,650 BC By David Wengrow Royal genealogies: At Abydos sealings containing first dynasty royal names were found and reconstructed. The seals had apparently been used in royal funerary rites.
    After David Wengrow The Archaeology of Early Egypt: Social Transformations in North-East Africa, C. 10,000 to 2,650 BC, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p.132
  • Offering scene Seals with symbolic contents: An offering scene
    Black steatite cylinder seal: Seated figure facing an offering table
    UC11710, Petrie Museum website [1]  
  • Seals bearing names Seals bearing names
    From left to right:
    Amenhotep, UC11938
    Nefertiri, UC11874
    Nebkaure, Middle Kingdom, UC11280
    Source: Petrie Museum website [1]  
    Many Middle Kingdom scarabs appear to have been used as seals and often bore the name and title of their owner. Seals with names of pharaohs were probably given to deserving citizens as a royal favour [3]. Mummies were furnished with seals bearing the deceased's name, ensuring survival of the name and thus eternal life.

[2] G. Maspero, History of Egypt, Vol. VIII, p.11
[3] Carol Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, p.52
[4] Michael Rice, Egypt's Making: The Origins of Ancient Egypt 5000-2000 BC, p.67
[5] Meritef in a letter to the Amen songstress Renenutet refers to the fact that a seal of his had to be authenticated:
And then the words which I have said that you may send (someone) in order to confirm the validity of a sealing (made) with my seal, and that you may perceive that one has sent (someone already) for this confirmation, before I had asked (for it)
pLeiden I.366: Letter by Mery-itief to Rennut
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften
What the sealing had been applied to is not mentioned in the letter.
[6] Among the crimes Seth committed according to the Papyrus of Imhotep was the opening of a sealed secret coffin:
You have opened the secret chest (coffin) which is in Heliopolis in order to see what was in it, (even though) it was sealed with the seal of the 77 gods! You habe broken open the shrine of one cubit in which was the great mysterious scarab! Re will smite you on your head, he will destroy your ba!
Papyrus of Imhotep son of Pshentohe, New York MMA 35.9.21, 3
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften
[7] The servant of a funerary foundation Panetieni wrote in a message pertaining to a shipment of cloth:
The list belonging to it: /// linen /// 1 piece, metshu-linen (?) /// 1 (piece), shu-linen /// 1 (piece), metkema-linen /// 20 (pieces). To take away with the seal of the servant on it
Illahun, pUC 32216, 12th dynasty
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften
Living creatures such as cattle or slaves on the other hand could of course not be marked using mud seals. Cattle were sometimes branded, while slaves were occasionally tattooed.
[8] After a transliteration and German translation by I. Hafemann on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => Briefe des Deir el-Medina Corpus => pBM 10375 => Brief des Bu-teh-Imen an den Vizekönig von Kusch und General Pianch
[9] After a transliteration and German translation by F. Feder on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Späte Totenliturgien => Papyrus des Imhotep Sohn des Pschentohe New York MMA 35.9.21 => 3. Die Enthüllungen der Geheimnisse der vier Kugeln aus Ton
[10] Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian materials and technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.291f.

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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites
-[1] Petrie Museum collection
-A Curious Sealed Pottery Jar by Elaine A. Evans
-Dynasty I Jar Sealings by Elaine A. Evans

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© November 2006
September 2008