Sealing was used in Egypt from the Early Dynastic period onward to ensure that documents and the contents of containers or rooms were preserved intact. This sealing was done by pressing a cylinder or stamp seal against a prepared surface of Nile mud, leaving a distinctive impression imprinted on the clay. Although the mud sealing could be broken easily, the seal decoration theoretically could not be reproduced without the seal itself. The primary purpose was to reveal any unauthorized tampering with the contents of the letters, pottery vessels, baskets, boxes, sacks, storerooms, or tombs that had been sealed.

Evidence from the seals themselves and the mud sealings they produce tends to be complementary. Many extant seals come from the antiquity trade or have been excavated in funerary contexts. Dating is complicated by the possibility of seals being heirlooms or objects recovered years after their creation, and again pressed into service. The archaeological context of sealings is a firmer indication of date because, once broken, sealings were not reused. Seals were often worn on necklaces or rings and thus functioned as jewelry or amulets. The presence of sealings is evidence that seals were functional and not merely ornamental. Both sealings and seals provide significant chronological data as well as evidence for reconstructing Egyptian administration and cultural contact with neighboring lands.

Cylinder Seals.

The earliest type of seal commonly used in Egypt was cylindrical in shape and was pierced lengthwise for a cord or wire, on which it could be hung from the owner's wrist or neck. Incised decoration or writing was placed on the exterior of the seal; the impression would repeat the same design as long as the seal was rolled across fresh mud placed over jar openings or over cords tying together other goods. This type of sealing was most useful for large objects because the design could be extended indefinitely.

The earliest evidence for cylinder seals comes from the Uruk period (about 3700 BCE) in southwestern Iran and southern Mesopotamia. By the end of the fourth millennium, this type of tubular seal was used throughout the ancient Near East, coming rather late to Egypt. The idea of sealing and the decorative motifs used on the seals could have been transmitted to Egypt through trade goods on which clay sealings had been affixed. The iconography of Predynastic Egyptian cylinder seals with patterns of cross-hatching and fish motifs shows its closest affiliation to be with material from Susa, suggesting southwestern Iran rather than Mesopotamia proper as the source for the seals found in Egypt. While some early cylinder seals were imported from western Asia, others may be Egyptian-made, but of foreign inspiration.

Sealing was not characteristic of the Predynastic period in Egypt; fewer than twenty seals are known from Predynastic cemeteries, and these may have been exotic pieces of jewelry or trade goods. About half of the examples were acquired by purchase or are without clear archaeological context. Excavated cylinder seals have come from Abusir el-Meleq (tomb 1033), Ballas (tomb 307), Nag el-Deir (tomb 7304), Naqada (tombs 1863 and 29), Matmar, and Zawiyet el-Aryan. Predynastic cylinder seals have also been recovered from the Nubian sites of Gerf Hussein, Saras West, and Kashkush. In all cases the archaeological context is of later Gerzean (Naqada II) date. The late Predynastic cylinder seals from Egypt form a coherent group of small (2–3 centimeters/1–2 inches) stone (mostly limestone) seals.

Sealing and writing were both adopted by the central government bureaucracy of a unified Egypt to extend and ensure state control over the country; first dynasty seals and sealings form some of the earliest collections of hieroglyphic writing. Seals and sealings of the new state have been recovered from both Palestine ('En Besor) and from A-Group contexts in Nubia. The tombs of the governing class of Early Dynastic Egypt were full of large jars containing provisions for the afterlife. These were topped by large cone-shaped lumps of clay, often set atop a small saucer placed over the jar opening. A cylinder seal was rolled up one side of this cap and down the other; sometimes this was repeated with a second seal, and the two impressions cross at the top.

The royal names preserved on first and second dynasty sealings are of primary importance in dating and sequencing tombs in the major cemeteries of the period. Emery suggested that many of the Abydos tombs were only cenotaphs (memorials), with the pharaohs actually being buried at Saqqara. The first dynasty Saqqara tombs, however, are better explained as the burial places of the high officials identified in the sealings. Sealings from a number of kings often appear in the same Saqqara tomb, and there are more first dynasty Saqqara tombs than there are pharaohs for this period. Sealed grave goods from royal storehouses would have been assigned as rewards or payment to the officials actually buried in the tombs.

Small cylinder seals belonging to individuals have been found in lower-class Early Dynastic burials, most notably at the site of Nag el-Deir. Most are made of black steatite, but some are made of wood and ivory. They are decorated with hieroglyphic signs that seem to represent the owners' names. Usually these seals have a representation of the human figure seated in front of an offering table, such as is depicted on Old Kingdom false doors and stelae. Thus, these seals seem to be an inexpensive version of the funerary stela, with the primary function of preserving the name of the deceased. There is no evidence that these private Early Dynastic cylinder seals were ever used to seal anything.

Although the private funerary use of cylinder seals did not continue into the third dynasty, the royal and official use of the larger seals with complex designs and texts continued throughout the Old Kingdom (third to sixth dynasties). Seals were such an important part of the state bureaucracy that an official from Meir records in his tomb that his seal of office never spent the night apart from him. Important groups of Old Kingdom sealings have been found at Abusir, Beit Khallaf, Giza, and Buhen in Nubia. They provide evidence for bureaucratic activity, as well as for dating and for identifying officials and tombowners. For example, the box sealings in the Giza tomb of Queen Hetepheres show that she was buried in the reign of her son Khufu, rather than that of her husband Sneferu. Sealings in the Giza mastabas were used to seal canopic chests. After being passed around the chest in two directions, a string was tied at the top; the knot was covered with a lump of clay across which a cylinder seal was rolled.

Cylinder seals continued to be made in Egypt throughout the Middle Kingdom, during which period, as the traditional form of seal, they were favored for royal names. Many examples would not have been suitable for use as seals, being made with multiple lobes or having glaze filling up the incised characters of the royal name. By the First Intermediate Period, therefore, cylinders seem to be treated more as a type of amulet rather than as a working badge of office. Cylinders continue to appear as an archaic form in the Second Intermediate Period, New Kingdom, and even later.

Seal Amulets.

The use of seals as amulets becomes increasingly important with the introduction of a new type of seal in sixth dynasty Egypt. These seal amulets appear in circular, oval, and rectangular shapes, with a flat base on which a design is carved. A number of these seals have small ring-shanks on the back and thus are referred to as “button seals” (Knopfsiegel in German). The backs of many of these seals are simple domes or pyramids. Others are carved in the shape of a wide variety of human and animal figures—crocodile, hippopotamus, frog, lizard, ape, and hawk—sometimes just the head of which is shown. Soon scarab (beetle-shaped) seals, along with cowroid and hemispherical seals, were introduced. Although at first just one form among many, by the end of the First Intermediate Period the scarab had become the dominant Egyptian seal type.

The seal amulets are made of glazed and unglazed steatite, limestone, faience, pottery, bone, ivory, and rock crystal. Their design repertoire consists largely of geometric motifs, linear maze patterns, and magical symbols, but it also includes human, animal, and insect figures done in a linear style. With the introduction of scarab and ovoid seal amulets toward the end of the First Intermediate Period, the geometric designs are replaced by floral motifs with spiral and scroll patterns. This type of decoration is in stark contrast to the traditional hieroglyphic inscriptions found on cylinder seals. Early scholars, such as Petrie and Frankfort, sought to explain this phenomenon through foreign influence from Syria, Anatolia, or the Aegean. Some influence in the choice of seal type and in the geometric or spiral designs may have reached Egypt from abroad, since a steady commerce connected Old Kingdom Egypt with the Phoenician port city of Byblos on the Levantine coast.

Ward (1970) has argued plausibly for a native Egyptian origin of the First Intermediate Period seal amulets. The key factor here is archaeological context; no pottery or other objects with foreign associations have been found in connection with seal amulets. There is no pattern of foreign influence, but rather a clear distinction in the status and social class of the seal owners: the seal amulets are associated with the burials of individuals of relatively low social status and wealth.

The forerunners of the seal amulets may be a series of cylinder seals from the late Old Kingdom described by Fischer (1972). These cylinder seals are decorated with motifs that resemble hieroglyphs but are used in a decorative fashion. Frequently the designs are arranged so that one half faces one way and the other half faces in the opposite direction in a tête-bêche (head to foot) arrangement, also found among seal amulet designs. As central control loosened in the sixth dynasty, a more popular taste in seal design came into play; its decorative patterns first emerged with hieroglyphic signs and then came to dominate the seal motif repertoire.

The seal amulets represent a provincial art style rather than the formal art of the pharaonic court. Although small quantities of seal amulets have been found in Lower and Upper Egypt, the vast majority of known seal amulets (399 of 575, by one count) have been recovered from Brunton's excavations in Middle Egypt at the sites of Matmar, Mostagedda, and Qau/Badari, most of them from burials of women and children. For example, Brunton records 229 seals from Qau/Badari, 48 percent of which were found with women, 5 percent with children, and 4 percent with men. The seals accompanying men were often scarabs. The position of these seals is most often at the neck, where they would have been hung from a string, either alone or with beads or other amulets as part of a necklace. In some cases the seals seem to have been placed with other toilet articles in a box near the body. Some seals (mostly scarabs) were found placed in the hands of the deceased. Although fully capable of being used as seals, these objects apparently served rather as protective amulets or had a decorative function as jewelry.

Middle and New Kingdom Sealings.

Sealings show that scarabs or ovoids were being used as personal seals in early twelfth dynasty Thebes. These seals were not inscribed with their owners' names and have the same type of decoration as the seal amulets. Two identical sealings found on the Hekanakhte correspondence are decorated with a spiral design and the hieroglyph for “seal.” Another impression with C-scroll decoration was recovered from the Theban tomb of Meketre. The great silver scarab of Meketre's estate manager Wah shows the type of seal from which these impressions were made. It is decorated with S-scrolls and such hieroglyphic motifs as cobras and the sign for “life.” Further evidence is provided by around fifty seal impressions and hundreds of fragmentary, undecorated clay sealings (bullae) recovered from East Karnak in 1991. Along with spirals, scrolls, rosettes, and hieroglyphic emblems, linear and stick figure motifs appear on the East Karnak sealings.

Comparable collections of late twelfth and thirteenth dynasty sealings are known from Lower Egypt (Abu Ghâlib), from a royal mortuary town (Kahun) near the capital, from Upper Egypt (Abydos), and from a number of fortresses in Nubia. The largest number and best-published sealings from this period come from the Nubian fortress of Uronarti; almost five thousand sealings were recovered from this site by Reisner and Wheeler. About half of these were large door or sack sealings that bore the name of the Uronarti storehouse—“Storehouse of the Fortress of ḫstἰwnw.” Some of these were overstamped with private seals, indicating that an individual was taking personal responsibility for the security of the goods involved. Often the fingerprints made while pressing down the seal are still visible.

New Kingdom jar sealings are known from palace, funerary temple, village (Deir el-Medina), and tomb contexts at Thebes and other sites in Upper Egypt and Nubia. Important collections from Malqata (reign of Amenhotpe III), Tell el-Amarna (reign of Akhenaten), and the tomb of Tutankhamun show three major types of jar sealings: cylindrical, domed, and cap-shaped. Paintings from Theban tomb 188 (Parennefer) depict the act of impressing the seal against the mud sealing. The sealer holds the seal in the right hand and a bowl in his left, which would have contained water with which to wet or clean off the seal. The stamp seals contain inscriptions identifying the jar contents, such as “honey for the sed-festival” or “wine from the estate of the Aten.” New Kingdom Theban tombs were generally closed with some form of sealing. Most notable is the seal of the royal necropolis with the figure of the Anubis jackal represented over three rows of three captives each, found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and elsewhere in the Valley of the Kings. The use of scarabs, seals of other shapes, and signet rings to seal papyrus documents continued through the New Kingdom until the Greco-Roman period.

Seals and sealing performed a number of roles throughout ancient Egyptian history. They served as security devices, for both the state bureaucracy and private individuals, for documents, containers, and spaces. Seals were used as protective amulets, funerary labels, and personal ornaments, sometimes in addition to, but often to the exclusion of, their sealing function. Although usually decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions containing names, titles, and/or protective emblems, Egyptian seals performed many of these same functions with only simple decorative patterns.

See also AMULETS; and SCARABS.


  • Baines, John, ed. Stone Vessels, Pottery and Sealings from the Tomb of Tut'ankhamun. Oxford, 1993. Note articles by Colin Hope (“The Jar Sealings,” pp. 87–138) and Olaf E. Kaper (“The Door Sealings and Object Sealings”).
  • Boochs, Wolfgang. Siegel und Siegeln im Alten Ägypten. (Kölner Forschungen zu Kunst und Altertum, 4.) St. Augustin, 1982. Concentrates on textual and inscriptional evidence for how seals were used in ancient Egypt.
  • Brunton, Guy. Qau and Badari I–III. (British School of Archaeology in Egypt Publications, 44, 45, 50.) London, 1927–1930. Excavation report of the largest collection of First Intermediate Period seal amulets.
  • Dunham, Dows. Second Cataract Forts II: Uronarti, Shalfak, Mirgissa. Boston, 1967. A fuller treatment of the Uronarti material with the same illustrations appears in George A. Reisner “Clay Sealings of Dynasty XIII from Uronarti Fort,” Kush 3 (1955), 26f. Dunham also includes seal impressions from Shalfak (pl. 71) and Mirgissa (figs. 9–12).
  • Fischer, Henry. “Old Kingdom Cylinder Seals for the Lower Classes.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 6 (1972), 5–16.
  • Frankfort, Henri. Cylinder Seals: A Documentary Essay on the Art and Religion of the Ancient Near East. London, 1939. Classic presentation of the influence of Mesopotamian glyptic on Egypt; see especially pp. 292–300.
  • Gibson, M., and R. Biggs, eds. Seals and Sealings in the Ancient Near East. (Bibliotheca Mesopotamica, 6.) Malibu, 1977. Publication of a symposium concerning the role of seals in ancient Near Eastern society. Note articles by Janet Johnson (“Private Name Seals of the Middle Kingdom,” pp. 141–145) and Bruce Williams (“Aspects of Sealing and Glyptic in Egypt before the New Kingdom,” pp. 135–138).
  • Hope, Colin. Malkata and the Birket Habu Jar Sealings and Amphorae. Egyptology Today, 5.2. Warminster, 1978. Provides basic typology of New Kingdom jar sealings, including list of depictions of sealed jars in tombs from Tell el-Amarna and Thebes.
  • Kaplony, Peter. Die Rollsiegel des Alten Reichs. (Monumenta Aegyptiaca, 2–3.) 2 vols. Brussels, 1977, 1981. Old Kingdom cylinder seals studied by motif and king's name, with an extensive section on the seals from Abusir.
  • Martin, Geoffrey T. Scarabs, Cylinders and Other Ancient Egyptian Seals: A Checklist of Publications. Warminster, 1985. Extensive bibliography of older material, but does not include excavation reports.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Buttons and Design Scarabs. (British School of Archaeology in Egypt Publications, 38.) London, 1925. Reprinted by Aris & Phillips in 1974, this seminal publication contains illustrations of seals and scarabs from the Egyptian collection in University College, London.
  • Pittman, Holly. “Cylinder Seals and Scarabs in the Ancient Near East.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, pp. 1589–1603. New York, 1994. General survey useful for placing Egypt in its Near Eastern context.
  • Podzorski, Patricia V. “Predynastic Egyptian Seals of Known Provenience in the R. H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 47 (1988), 259–268.
  • Reisner, George A., and W. S. Smith. A History of the Giza Necropolis II: The Tomb of Hetep-heres the Mother of Cheops. Cambridge, Mass., 1955. Chapter 6, “The Mud Impressions,” covers the sealings from the tomb of Hetepheres and other seal impressions recovered by the Harvard-Boston Expedition to Giza.
  • Reisner, George A., and N. F. Wheeler. “The Art of Seal Carving in Egypt in the Middle Kingdom.” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 28 (1930), 47–55. Good general introduction, with emphasis on the socio-economic context of the Uronarti sealings.
  • Ward, William A. Egypt and the East Mediterranean World 2200–1900 B.C.: Studies in Egyptian Foreign Relations during the First Intermediate Period. Beirut, 1971. Reviews interconnections between Minoan glyptic art and Egyptian seal amulets, arguing for the native Egyptian development of spiral decoration.
  • Ward, William A. “The origin of Egyptian Design-Amulets.” journal of Egyptian Archaeology 56 (1970), 65–80.

Steven Blake Shubert