In the context of identity a seal is an engraved or relieved stamp, used to make a distinct impression in a blob of softer material (often clay or wax1) or, when dipped in ink, to stamp a design onto paper or similar materials. In the modern era, the few remaining identity seals tend to be stamps which press a physical impression directly into the paper and the infamous "rubber stamp" continues to preserve something of the seal into modern usage. The impression or design that it creates is normally unique to the seal that makes it and serves in place of a signature for its bearer - especially in non-literate or semi-literate cultures or those where the state of calligraphy makes having a personal signature tiresome. A seal can also serve as a form of tamper proofing - for example a blob of wax can be placed across the closure of a document and stamped with a seal. Opening the document will break the seal and make the tampering obvious … in theory at least.
Where heraldry is practised, a seal might well bear the owner's coat of arms, otherwise some other device will need to be selected. Size will vary depending on the user and their culture - most European seals were small enough to fit on a signet ring but official seals, especially those belonging to the offices of the royal court, could be much larger. Obviously the larger the seal, the more potential for detail and complication and the harder it should be to duplicate. Chinese "chop" seals, generally of the ink stamp variety, are typically small enough to be conveniently carried in a pocket. Some of the earliest seals know, apparently originating in Mesopotamia, are cylindrical and around the size of a soft drinks can.
Materials of construction are typically culturally dependant - the Chinese favour ivory and jade but will use anything in a pinch, other cultures have traditionally used stone (many European signet rings were faced in stone) or metals.
Modern seals tend to be single use devices designed with tamper evidence in mind and/or to leave residue wherever they are placed and often bear a unique identifying number to further inhibit re-sealing after tampering. Holograms and scanner-defeating patterns are not unusual design features and the overall form may be anything from a non-releasing tie to a sticky label.
Game and Story Use
- Acquiring and/or duplicating seals will be major objective for those up to no good in the relevant times and places.
- As, therefore, will be recovering them.
- Even when it's not possible to impersonate someone by using their seal, depriving them of it may be enough to bring their business to a grinding halt whilst they replace it.
- Where magic is a factor, there may well be a way to include a magic factor into the seal design.
- Finding a seal stamped onto something may lead to an attempt to identify whose seal it is before breaking it.
- May … probably should, especially for more honest characters.
- Or even just smarter ones if the seal happens to be on a door several levels down a dungeon. In this case the question should not only be who sealed it but why. Those who assume it's a treasure cache and bust it open may find that hilarity ensues … and even then if only because they've robbed the wrong people.
- Lead pressure seals are still used in the modern era, commonly on tamper seals fitted to consignments of material (e.g. following a customs inspection to allow them to pass further border checks)