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Seals and Sealings


A matter of administration: prehistoric seals and sealings

At about 6200 BC, people in Syria began to use stone as well as clay, wood, bone and shell for the manufacture of stamp seals in many different shapes and dimensions. Usually, the seals’ flat surfaces were carved with geometric designs, but animals and plants were also represented. The engraved surface was meant to be impressed on lumps of wet clay or plaster placed on the fastening of baskets, ceramics, stone vessels, sacks and other containers or covering their opening entirely. In this manner, seals helped to define individual property and secure the containers against unauthorized opening, a useful tool in the organization of storage and in the control of exchange networks.



Clay sealings with stamp-seal impressions from Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6000 BC (Burnt Village)

Such a system, comprehensible to everyone, was of such simple efficiency and flexibility that it remained in use for thousands of years. The development of administrative devices, transcending the keeping of records by memory, may well have been associated with a growing sense of family identity and private ownership in the late Neolithic and a change in the relations of production and storage. The sealed products were not available to all members of the community, but only to those who, by the act of sealing, had appropriated them. In the seventh and sixth millennia, society may have become more differentiated, in the sense that there were groups in the communities who had goods to protect or secure from other people. Although their precise meaning still eludes us, the elaborate designs of some seals suggest that the engraved stones were not always (or exclusively) used as seals. Many also may have been used as personal ornaments or as amulets with apotropaic or magical functions. They were often pierced to be worn as pendants on the body.


More clay sealings with stamp-seal impressions from Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6000 BC (Burnt Village)

Over 300 clay sealings have been found in storehouses of the Burnt Village at Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6000 BC, together with a large number of simple geometric tokens (calculi) and human and animal figurines. Their abundance, together with their relatively limited distribution in one or two rooms inside these storage buildings, suggests that the sealings were deliberately stored in 'archives’ open to inspection and control after their removal from containers. More than 80 seals appear to have been in use simultaneously at Tell Sabi Abyad, indicating that the practice of sealing was in the hands of many people, probably in the context of controlled storage.


A stone vessel with a clay lid, showing impressions of stamp seals. Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6000 BC (Burnt Village)

It has been suggested that the sealings facilitated the storage of property belonging to large groups of semi-nomadic people in order to avoid disputes over the ownership or the condition of the stored goods. It is obvious that when people are able to acquire property, some will be able to accumulate more than others. Property that could subsequently be used to emphasize the individual's identity, position and rank as well as increase them. Property that could be used to exert power and to create relations of dependency.


Although many researchers have tried to link the practice of sealing with elites restricting access to goods for their own social and economic advantage, the evidence is tentative at best for the late Neolithic. The sealing system unquestionably had enormous potential for the exercise and manipulation of power, but we cannot take the use of this potential for granted. At least in the case of Tell Sabi Abyad, it is difficult to reconcile the vast number of different seal impressions with the presence of a restricted elite group. Essentially, the sealing system was a simple and flexible means of control over property, whether in the hands of leaders or commoners.


Clay sealings from the burnt storage building in Operation II at Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6100 BC

The sealings from the Burnt Village were all made of local clay. This is shown by the chemical analyses of the clay. Consequently the sealed baskets and jars did not come to Tell Sabi Abyad from distant places by means of trade, but were sealed on the spot. This was probably done to make sure that the contents were not interfered with during their storage in the large rectangular buildings in the village. It is possible that groups of herdsmen from the population used these warehouses for the storage of their property during their move with their herds of sheep and goats to good pasture land.


Clay sealings from the burnt storage building in Operation II at Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6100 BC

A large collection of clay sealings was also found in a burnt building dated at about 6100 BC in the northeastern portion of Tell Sabi Abyad (Operation II). At least five different stamp seals appear to have been used to seal the pots and baskets in the burnt storage building. In short, the building did not belong to one person but was shared by several persons to store their sealed property. See: Burnt Storage Building


Clay sealings from the burnt storage building in Operation II at Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6100 BC

The finds at Tell Sabi Abyad show us that very early in the history of Syria and the ancient Near East in general people had ideas about private property. Thousands of years before the invention of writing, there was an elaborate system for the management and administration of private property.