Ancient clay stamp seals and sealings of Sri Lanka

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sun Feb 8 17:18:08 PST 2004

Sunday,  8 February 2004

Online edition of Sunday Observer - Business

Ancient clay stamp seals and sealings of  Sri Lanka

by Rajah M. Wickremesinghe
The world's oldest clay stamp seal had been unearthed in 1990 in the
ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. This city was situated in Southern Iraq
along the river Euphrates, below present day Baghdad. The seal is
attributed to a king of the 1st dynasty of Babylon circa 2550 BC.

 Sarah Kielt has in her work expressed the opinion that the various  types
of seals discovered by archaeologists can be dated from as far back  as
6000 BC particularly in the ancient civilisations of the Near East.  Roger
J. Mathews identifies such seals as stamp, cylinder, and tablet, the  last
named bearing a seal impression on both sides.

 A stamp seal could even have been attached to a ring and has only one
impression impression as opposed to a cylinder seal which had multiple
imprints on it. The latter were utilized by rolling them on to wet clay.
Cylinder seals have an aperture running through the centre in its entire
length, facilitating being rolled. They could also be worn round the
owners neck to make it secure. It is accepted by archaeologists that
cylinder seals had been invented in Southern Mesopotamia around 3500 BC.

 Seals provide important evidence similarly to coins, for the
re-construction of ancient socio-economic history of a region. Many active
trading and administrative centres of ancient civilisations have yielded
seals and sealings of clay in very large numbers. This has enabled the
uncovering of their hidden secrets.

 Seals had initially been used for accounting and later as Temple  records,
for administration purposes and lastly as trading receipts. In  the Near
East it is observed that the advent of coins was centuries after  the use
of seals.

 However, in Sri Lanka we note that in Ruhuna a unique lead coinage
inscribed in Brahmi appears simultaneously with seals and clay sealings.

A sealing is the impression of a seal pressed on wet clay, its usage
similar to that in modern times, when sealing wax is placed over a knot,
in the instance string is used to secure a parcel or package. In ancient
times a lump of clay was pressed over the knot of string or strapping
securing packages or bundles and then marked with the senders seal which
was his stamp of ownership. Sealings were also used when the mouth of jars
or containers were covered with woven material and secured with a string.
In Mesopotamia they were in addition used to securing containers, jars,
baskets, sacks, leather bags and also door ways and lids of boxes.

 The clay sealing 32x30 mm (fig. 1) bearing the legend 'Maharaja Gamini
Tissaha Devanampiya' in Nagari Script meaning 'of the great king Gamini
Tissa the beloved of the Gods' was found by a villager cultivating his
land in Akurugoda in Tissamaharama in 1989. In 'Ruhuna an ancient
civilisation revisited' co-authored by O. Bopearachchi and the writer it
is attributed to king Saddhatissa 77 - 59 BC.

 This at present is the oldest attested clay sealing found in the  island.
At the centre of the seal is a railed swastika with the above  noted legend
distributed on the three sides excluding the base.

 Two other sealings also of the same provenance are illustrated (Figs.  II
and III). One depicts the foreparts of two lions each facing opposite
directions with outstretched fore legs and the other a lion and elephant
similarly joined. Both sealings have distinct legends in Brahmi.

 The three sealings described above are not trade sealings. They have no
impressions of string at the back and could be identified as having been
used only for an administrative purpose. This places these three sealings
apart from all other sealings described.

 Clay trade sealings

Fig. IV depicts a sealing with evidence of a securing device (appearing  to
be a strap and not string at the back) and bears a large railed  swastika
68x58 mm. with an indistinct Brahmi legend on the outer edge.  This
presently is the largest trade sealing found in the Island.

Fig. V is of a unique clay sealing yet unpublished, found in Niyadella  in
Ruhuna in 1996 where figures similar to those found on Roman coins of  the
early Christian era, are clearly visible in the three separate stamps  on
the sealing. On the reverse instead of a string it depicts the design  of a
woven reed mat on which the seal has been placed. Another clay  sealing
depicting the head of a Roman soldier similar to those on 3rd  century
brass Roman coins had been found in Tissamaharama in 1989.

 Over 30 stamp sealings recording trade had been found in Akurugoda,
depicting male and female figures, lions, elephants, bulls and humped
bulls both standing and seated, wild boar, fishes, and one in which one
animal appears to be attacking another astride its back. Illustrated are
clay trade sealings with clear evidence of string used for securing - 'A'
an elephant (the reverse clearly depicts evidence of the manner of
securing) 'B' a horse, 'D' a standing humped bull and 'E' a recumbent
bull. These animals are variously featured in pre - 3rd century AD coins
of Sri Lanka. Also illustrated is a modern sealing - bearing the seal of
the GPO Kandy in order to enable readers to have an easier understanding
of a 'sealing'.


Of over 20 seals found in Akurugoda in 1989-90 one made of bone bearing  3
Brahmi characters is in the shape of an inverted pudding bowl Fig. VI.
Some large clay seals found in Ruhuna depict variations of the railed

 A clay seal with clear finger prints on the body of the seal and
depicting a standing horse is at Fig. VII. One seal made of ivory which
provided the impression of a seated bull had a hole pierced through its
stem facilitating it to be worn on a string (Fig. VIII). Fig IX is of a
juggling acrobat, possibly an entertainer in the king's court.

 Dr. Siran Deraniyagala the former Director General of Arahcaeology had  in
excavations at Gedige in Anuradhapura in 1979, discovered a unique
carnelian seal. H. Parker at the Yatthala dagaba in Tissamaharama had 100
years previously in 1884 found a seal also of carnelian which he believed
had been attached to a ring. Semi-precious gem-stones including carnelian
were often used in the manufacture of intaglios.

Such intaglios mounted on rings produced sealings when stamped on clay.
"Ruhuna an ancient civilisation re-visited' features colour  illustrations
of intaglios found in Akurugoda in Tissamaharama, as well as  other
relevant finds.

 A cylinder type seal also found in Akurugoda made of wood, with six  sides
had a hole through two sides through which a string or rod could be passed.
It bears a legend in Brahmi on the remaining four sides as seen on a
plasticine impression Fig. X.

 This legend is read as 'of Tissya, son of the accountant Goratha'  written
in Brahmi. Collectors should be aware of modern imitations.

 The author is currently the President of the Sri Lanka Numismatic  Society.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

More information about the cypherpunks-legacy mailing list