An Introduction to Ancient Seals.
In antiquity people felt keen anxieties regarding document security just as we do in the modern age. Various methods of storing and sealing documents were employed to restrict access and ensure authenticity. Documents treated in such a manner would include private letters, deeds to property, marriage contracts and receipts held for taxes rendered. Sealings were used to indicate that the proper authorities had authenticated the validity of the contracts or receipts, and could also indicate that others had borne witness to the transactions.
One particular method of sealing documents is particularly interesting. This is the practice of sealing what are known as double documents. “Double documents” typically consist of two separate blocks of text. One block explicitly lays out the terms of the contract (this portion is known as the scriptura exterior), and the other is either a complete reiteration or a synopsis of the contract (this portion is known as the scriptura interior). The scriptura interior is then rolled, a hole is punched in the papyrus between the two blocks of text and a strand of papyrus is passed through the document so that a clay seal can be stamped over it. The scriptura interior of the contract is now sealed so that it cannot be read without cutting the strand of papyrus that binds it, while the scriptura exterior may be consulted at will. This practice prevents any of the parties involved from editing important aspects of the document, such as the amount of money owed or the number of acres sold.
A number of sealed papyri at the University of Michigan have recently been opened. These are similar to the double documents as described above, but they preserve only scant information in the scriptura interior that is unlikely to be the synopsis of a contract. It is possible that the scriptura interior of these papyri only include the calculations that were vital to the contract, such as monetary amounts and units of property. In such a case these documents may prove to have been notary contracts. Full publication of these documents will disclose their actual contents.
The measures taken by Leyla Lau-Lamb, senior conservator at the University of Michigan, will make future study of these documents possible, and facilitate a greater understanding of the practice of sealing contractual documents in antiquity.
To learn more about sealing practices in Greco-Roman Egypt, please consult Katelijn Vandorpe’s “Seals in and on the Papyri of Egypt.” Archives et Sceaux du Monde Hellenistique, Athens: Ecole Française d'Athènes, 1996: 231-291.
Dr. Vandorpe has also created a website dealing with this topic that can be accessed at http://lhpc.arts.kuleuven.ac.be/seals/.