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Present-day impression of a Late Bronze Age seal
Seal of Náchod town from year 1570

A seal can be a wax seal bearing an impressed figure, or an embossed figure in paper, with the purpose of authenticating a document, but the term can also mean any device for making such impressions or embossments, essentially being a mould that has the mirror image of the figure in counter-relief, such as mounted on rings known as signet rings. This article is concerned with devices and methods for making such imprints.

If the imprint is made as a relief resulting from the greater pressure on the paper where the high parts of the seal touch, the seal is known as a dry seal; in all other cases a liquid or liquified medium (such as ink or wax) is used, usually in another color than the paper's.

For legal purposes, the definition of seal may be extended to include rubber stamps,[1] or writing specified words ("seal" or "L.S.")[2]

Sigillography is the term used for the study of seals.

Contents

Impression

Wax seal on an envelope
Pine resin seal on vellum tag or tail of an English deed dated 1638.

Seals are used to authenticate documents, applied directly to the face of the document, or attached to the document by cords or ribbons (often in the owner's liveries), or to a narrow strip of the document, sliced and folded down, as a tail but not detached from the document. This helped maintain authenticity by not allowing the reuse of the seal. If a forger tried to remove the seal in the first case, it would break. In the other cases, although the forger could remove the seal intact by ripping the cords from the paper, he would still have to separate the cords to attach it to another document, which would destroy the seal as well because the cords had knots tied in them inside the wax seal. Most governments still attach seals to letters patent. While many instruments required seals for validity (i.e. the deed or covenant) it is rather uncommon for private citizens to use seals anymore.

A seal on a letter from Loudoun Castle, Galston, Scotland.

Seals were applied to letters and parcels to indicate whether or not the item had been opened since the seal was applied. Seals were used both to seal the item to prevent tampering, as well as to provide proof that the item was actually from the sender and was not a forgery. To seal a letter, for example, a letter writer would compose the letter, fold it over, pour wax over the joint formed by the top of the page of paper, and then impress a ring, metal stamp, or other device. Governments would often send letters to citizens under the governmental seal for their eyes only. These were called letters secret. Seals are no longer commonly used in this way, except for ceremonial purposes.

Notaries still use seals on a daily basis. At least in Britain, each registered notary has an individual personal seal, registered with the authorities, which includes his or her name and a pictorial emblem, often an animal - the same combination found in many seals from Ancient Greece.

In Central and Eastern Europe, as in East Asia, a signature alone is considered insufficient to authenticate a document of any kind in business, and all managers, as well as many book-keepers and other employees, have personal seals, normally just containing text, with their name and their position. These are applied to all letters, invoices issued, and similar documents. In Europe these are today plastic self-inking stamps.

Seals are also affixed on architectural or engineering construction documents, or land survey drawings, to certify the identity of the licensed professional who supervised the development.[3][4][5] Depending on the authority having jurisdiction for the project, these seals may be embossed and signed, stamped and signed, or in certain situations a computer generated facsimile of the original seal validated by a digital certificate owned by the professional may be attached to a security protected computer file.[6] The identities on the professional seals determine legal responsibility for any errors or omissions, and in some cases financial responsibility for their correction.[7]

Ancient Near East

Ring stone from Zafar, Yemen, showing a torah shrine

Seals were used in the earliest civilizations and are of considerable interest in archaeology. In ancient Mesopotamia seals were engraved on cylinders, which could be rolled to create an impression on clay e.g., as a label on a consignment of trade goods. From Ancient Egypt seals in the form of signet-rings of kings have been found.

Recently, seals have come to light in South Arabia datable to the Himyarite age. One example shows a name written in Aramaic (Yitsḥaq bar Ḥanina) and engraved in reverse so as to be visible in the impression.

In the Indus Valley Civilization, rectangular seals were used to label trade goods and also had other purposes.

Ancient Greece and Rome

From the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC until the Dark Ages, seals of various kinds were in production in the Aegean islands and mainland Greece. In the Early Minoan Age these were formed of soft stone and ivory and show particular characteristic forms. By the Middle Minoan Age a new set for seal forms, motifs and materials appear. Hard stone requires new rotary carving techniques. The Late Bronze Age is the time par excellence of the lense-shaped seal and the seal ring, which continued in to the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods, in the form of pictorial engraved gems. These were a major luxury art form and became keenly collected, with King Mithridates VI of Pontus the first major collector according to Pliny the Elder. His collection fell as booty to Pompey the Great, who deposited it in a temple in Rome. Engraved gems continued to be produced and collected until the 19th century.

East Asia

A Baiwen name seal, read up-down-right-left: Ye Hao Min Yin (lit. "Seal of Ye Haomin")

Known as 印章 (Pinyin: yìnzhāng or yin4zhang1) in China, dojang or ingam in Korea and inkan or hanko in Japan, ink seals have been used in East Asia as a form of written identification since the invention of writing. Even in modern times, seals are still commonly used instead of handwritten signatures to authenticate official documents or financial transactions. Both individuals and organizations have official seals, and they often have multiple seals in different sizes and styles for different situations. East Asian seals usually bear the name of the person or organization represented, but they can also bear a poem or a personal motto. Sometimes both types of seals, or one large seal that bears a name and a motto, are used to authenticate official documents. Seals are so important in East Asia that foreigners who frequently conduct business there also commission the engraving of a personal seal.

East Asian seals are carved from a variety of hard materials, including wood, soapstone, seaglass and jade. East Asian seals are traditionally used with a red oil-based paste consisting of finely ground cinnabar, which contrasts with the black ink traditionally used for the ink brush. Red chemical inks are more commonly used in modern times for sealing documents. Seal engraving is considered a form of calligraphy in East Asia. Like ink brush calligraphy, there are several styles of engraving. Some engraving styles emulate calligraphy styles, but many styles are so highly stylized that the characters represented on the seal are difficult for untrained readers to identify. Seal engravers are considered artists, and in the past, several famous calligraphers also became famous as engravers. Some seals, carved by famous engravers, or owned by famous artists or political leaders, have become valuable as works of art and history.

Because seals are commissioned by individuals and carved by artists, every seal is unique, and engravers often personalize the seals they create. The material of seal and the style of the engraving are typically matched to the personality of the owner. Seals can be traditional or modern, conservative or expressive. Seals are sometimes carved with a figure on the owner's zodiac animal on the top of the seal. Seals are also sometimes carved with images or calligraphy on the sides.

Although it is a utilitarian instrument of daily business in East Asia, Westerners and other non-Asians seldom see Asian seals except on Asian paintings and works of calligraphy. All traditional paintings in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the rest of East Asia are watercolor paintings on silk, paper, or some other surface to which the red ink from seals can adhere. East Asian paintings often bear multiple seals, including one or two seals from the artist, and the seals from the owners of the painting.

East Asian seals are the predecessors to block printing.

Signet rings

Armigerous signet ring

Signet rings, in recent times generally bearing a coat of arms, are made by intaglio engraving, either in metal or engraved gems (generally semiprecious). Agate is a frequent material, especially carnelian or banded agate like sardonyx; the banding make the impression contrast with the ground. Most classical engraved gems were originally worn as signet rings.

Metal signet rings can also be cast, which is cheaper but yields a weaker material.

The wearing of signet rings (from Latin "signum" meaning sign) goes back to ancient Greece; the distinctive personal signature was not developed in antiquity and most documents needed a seal. The tradition continues, especially among the armigerous, in European and some other cultures. In Latin America, it is also traditional for the descendants of the old criollo aristocratic families to wear signet rings in the Spanish tradition.

Because it is used to attest the authority of its bearer, the ring has also been seen as a symbol of his power, which is one explanation for its inclusion in the regalia of certain monarchies. After the death of a Pope, the destruction of his signet ring is a prescribed act clearing the way for the sedevacancy and subsequent election of a new Pope.

Signet rings are also used as souvenir or membership attribute, e.g. class ring (typically bear the coat of arms or crest of the school), as an alternative to one with a stone.

The wearing of a signet ring is declining as the European aristocracy diminishes, however noble families have upheld long standing traditions of wearing signet rings for centuries. Sometimes the initials of the individual are engraved into the ring if the person is not of noble descent and does not have the right to bear arms.

Ecclesiastical seals

The use of a seal by men of wealth and position was common before the Christian era, so naturally high functionaries of the Church would adopt the habit as soon as they became socially and politically important. An incidental allusion in one of St. Augustine's letters (217 to Victorinus) lets us know that he used a seal.[8] The practice spread and it seems to be taken for granted by King Clovis I at the very beginning of the Merovingian dynasty (Monum. German. Histor.: Leg., II, 2).

A series of crosses from the sigillum cereum of Beatrice of Bar when donating property to San Zeno, Verona (1073).

Later ecclesiastical synods require that letters under the bishop's seal should be given to priests when for some reason they lawfully quit their own proper diocese. So it was enacted at Chalon-sur-Saône in 813. Pope Nicholas I in the same century complains that the bishops of Dôle and Reims had contra morem sent their letters to him unsealed (Jaffé, "Regesta", nn. 2789, 2806, 2823). The custom of bishops possessing seals may from this date be assumed to have been pretty general. At first they were only used for securing the document from impertinent curiosity and the seal was commonly attached to the ties with which it was fastened. When the letter was opened by the addressee, the seal was necessarily broken. Later the seal served as an authentication and was attached to the face of the document. The deed was thus only held to be valid so long as the seal remained intact. It soon came to follow from this point of view that not only real persons like kings and bishops, but also every kind of body corporate, cathedral chapters, municipalities, monasteries etc., also required a common seal to validate the acts which were executed in their name.

During the early Middle Ages seals of lead, or more properly "bullae" (from the Latin for lead), were in common use both in East and West, but except in the case of the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs, these leaden authentications soon went out of favour in western Christendom and it became the universal practice to take the impressions in wax. In England hardly any waxen seals have survived of earlier date than the Norman Conquest. In the British Museum collection the earliest bishop's seals preserved are those of William de St-Calais, Bishop of Durham (1081-96) and of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109).

The importance of the seal as a means of authentication necessitated that when authority passed into new hands the old seal should be destroyed and a new one made. When the pope dies it is the first duty of the Cardinal Camerlengo to obtain possession of the Ring of the Fisherman, the papal signet, and to see that it is broken up. A similar practice prevailed in the Middle Ages and it is often alluded to by historians, as it seems to have been a matter of some ceremony. Thus we are concisely told: "There died in this year Robert de Insula, Bishop of Durham. After his burial, his seal was publicly broken up in the presence of all by Master Robert Avenel." (Histor. Dunel. Scrip. Tres., p. 63). Matthew Paris gives a similar description of the breaking of the seal of William of Trumpington, Abbot of St Albans, in 1235.

A related practice is found among blacksmiths: their touchmark (a stamp used on the hot metal to show who made it) is destroyed upon their death.

Figurative uses

Metaphor

Representation of a seal of approval.

The expression Seal of Approval refers to a formal approval, regardless whether it involves a seal or other external marking, by an authoritative person or institute.

It is also part of the formal name of certain quality marks, such as:

See also

Stamps of old German seals
Sealing wax in a letter, Fonseca Padilla Family Coat of Arms, Jalisco, México.

References

  1. ^ Notary Public Handbook. (2009). California Secretary of State, Notary Public Section. p. 7.
  2. ^ Vermont Statutes Title 1 § 134 (2008). Vermont Legislature.
  3. ^ "What is a PE" National Society of Professional Engineers (US).
  4. ^ "How Building Officials Interact With Registered Architects And Engineers" National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (US).
  5. ^ GSA P100 Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service. Appendix A: "Submission Requirements" U.S. General Services Administration.
  6. ^ "Rule and Regulation Change Allowing the Construction and use of Computerized Seals" Kansas State Board of Technical Professions. Typical sample of requirements for a professional seal in the United States.
  7. ^ FAR 36.609 U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations, Subpart 36.6 Architect-Engineer Services, Article 36.609 Contract Clauses.
  8. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Seal". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Seal.  

Sources and external links

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Simple English

A seal is something such as a piece of wax which has an official mark on it, and which is attached to an important letter or document to make it official. It can also mean the device (e.g. a metal stamp or ring) which is used to make the official mark. The word comes from the Latin “sigillum”.

The study of seals is called Sigillography.

Contents

Impression

Seals are used on documents to prove that they really did come from the person who signed it (they “authenticate” the document). A seal could be put on the letter itself, or on the envelope where it is stuck down. The writer would pour some wax over the joint of the letter, then press a ring or metal stamp (called a matrix) which has his official mark on. This meant that no one would be able to open the letter and then close it again, because the seal will break when the letter is opened. Most governments still put seals on important documents. Letters do not normally have seals any more, even important letters.

Sometimes lead, pewter or ivory were used instead of wax.

Each seal is different from any other. This means that an important person (e.g. a king) has his own personalized stamp.

History of seals

Seals were used in very early civilizations. In ancient Mesopotamia seals were engraved on cylinders, which could be rolled to create an impression on clay. Signet-rings of kings from Ancient Egypt have been found. From Ancient Egypt seals in the form of signet-rings of kings have been found. Other ancient seals come from Saudi Arabia or the Ancient Greek and Roman times.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 seals were not used so much. The Popes used lead seals, and Charlemagne (who died in 814) had a special seal engraved with Jupiter Sarpis. In England all the kings from Edward the Confessor onwards had their own “seal of majesty”.

Seals from East Asian later developed into block printing. Seals from China have been found from the 5th century B.C.

The wearing of signet rings (from Latin "signum" meaning sign) is an old tradition among nobles in European and some other cultures. In Latin America, it is also traditional for the descendants of the old criollo aristocratic families to wear signet rings in the Spanish tradition.

Signet rings were often worn on the little finger of either the right or left hand (depending on the country), although some countries have different customs (French and German noblemen, and some Spanish nobles wear it on the ring finger of their left hand; Swiss wear it on the ring finger of their right hand). In the United Kingdom, signet rings are typically worn on the little finger of the left hand of the bearer and are often cast of gold. The ring is worn with the seal facing outwards so that the wearer can make a seal without taking the ring off.

A similar tradition is found with blacksmiths who use their “touchmark” (a stamp used on the hot metal to show who made it) on whatever they made. When they died their touchmark was destroyed.

The study of seals (sigillography) is very useful in many areas: genealogy, political history, art history etc. This is because modern science can work out very closely how old a seal is. This makes it possible to date documents or works of art.

Other uses of “seal” which come from the meaning of a seal (device)

The word “seal” is often used as a metaphor:

  • To “set one’s seal”, or to give one’s "seal of approval" means: to say or do something which seems to give one’s authority to some decision.

Because seals are used to close something officially, the word “seal” can also be used in other situations with a similar meaning:

  • A seal can mean a gesture or promise which is made, e.g. the promise made by two people at their marriage.
  • To “seal” can mean to decide or settle something, e.g. to “seal someone’s fate” or to “seal a business agreement”.
  • To “seal” can mean to close something for a long time. To “seal something off” means to close an area so that no one can go there.

References

Encyclopedia Britannica 1973 edition


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