A seal is an impression printed on, embossed upon, or affixed to a document (or any other object) in order to authenticate it, in lieu of or in addition to a signature. The word is also used to describe the device used to make this impression.
Seal as impression
The use of seals, in wax or embossed on paper, to authenticate writings is a practice as old as writing itself. Seals of this nature were applied directly to the face of the document or attached to the document by cords (see Papal Bull for a description) in the owner's heraldic colors, 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'd 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 uncomon for private citizens to use seals anymore.
Seals were also 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 is 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.
The most common uses of the seal today are:
- to certify that a person has given an oath or acknowledgement, see notary public
- to certify the correctness of a copy of a record maintained by a court or other government agency.
Seal as device
Seals were used in the earliest civilisations 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. In the Indus Valley Civilisation, rectangular seals were used to label trade goods and also had other purposes. In modern Japan, the hanko signature-stamp is still in relatively widespread use.
Seals in Japan
In Japan, seals, called inkan are customarily used instead signatures when doing business or other procedures, both for businesses and for private persons. In certain cases only seals are acceptable. The seal is carved on the end of a stick of jade and is used as a stamp with red ink. Upon acquring a new inkan, the owner customarily strikes it violently so that minuscule cracks develop in its ridges, which become visible in the inked impression as an unforgable fingerprint.
Seals in China
In China, seals were engraved on the end of a finger-sized piece of wood, called a chop (印). Westerners often confuse that device with the longer wooden sticks used for eating, kuàizi (筷子) or kuài'er (筷兒) in Mandarin, and erroneously call the eating utensils "chopsticks".
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04