Seals and Signet Rings—1 Kings 21:8

Seals and signet rings served similar roles to modern signatures validating contracts, products and documents. In Mesopotamia, there were mainly two types: stamp and cylinder seals. The former usually consisted of a religious image accompanied by a text identifying the owner, one’s title or profession, political or religious affiliation. The seals were made of stone, wood, bone, or ivory. Personal seals could be worn as amulets or ornaments. The design on both stamp and cylinder seals was engraved in reverse for making a positive impression on wet clay. The cylinder seals were tubular and made of ceramic, stone, or gemstone.

Stamp seals emerged during the formative years of Mesopotamian civilization (early fourth millennium BC), then cylinder seals began to appear by the late fourth millennium BC. Gradually, Mesopotamians abandoned the stamp seals for the new type. The Akkadian empire (2350–2150 BC) and the third dynasty of Ur (2100–2000 BC) mainly used cylinder seals. They remained popular until the rise of the neo-Assyrian empire during the first millennium BC when the royal palace adopted stamp seals as the preferred method of sealing documents.

A large number of scarab seals found in Egypt demonstrates its importance in that empire. They usually included one of the royal names of the pharaoh ruling at the time of the seal’s manufacture. People seemed to have primarily used this type of seal as a religious amulet rather than an administrative tool. Such scarab seals, when encountered in excavations throughout Israel and Jordan, help date an archaeological layer. The Hebrew terms for seal (hotam) and signet ring (taba’at) are two of the many Egyptian loanwords found in the Bible, the latter appearing for the first time in the Joseph narrative (Gen. 41:42).

Archaeologists have recovered hundreds of pieces of clay or bitumen, known as bullae, from their excavations in the ancient Near East. The bullae were lumps of clay stamped with seal impressions when wet and then dried. For instance, in a destroyed house in the City of David, they discovered a hoard of 51 bullae from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign against Jerusalem in 586 BC. Through the analysis of the names and occupations recorded on them, one can gain a glimpse of Jerusalem’s daily life during the period of the Babylonian invasion. Archaeologists have discovered bullae stamped with the seals of such important Israelite and Judahite kings as Hosea, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, and also the bullae of many royal officials in their courts, including Gemariah son of Saphan (Jer. 36:10-27), and Gedaliah son of Pashhur (Jer. 38:1-4). Such findings corroborate the historicity of these individuals as described in Scripture.


King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel.

Magness-Gardiner, “Seals, Mesopotamia,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1062-1063.