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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 swastika.

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.

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