Seal (Identity)
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"My father, who considered himself a great wit, would often regale guests after dinner with an anecdote of his early career: that he started work in an unusually low beamed counting house and, being a tall young man, often had occasion to complain that his job involved and excessive amount of … <ahem> sealing wax. He would then proceed to explain the joke."

Basic Information

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. In Europe, the latter end of the sealing era could also see letters in particular sealed with a "wafer" - essentially a distinctive piece of paper glued across the closure where a seal might otherwise be. Sealing with a wafer was, to a certain degree, a low status way of doing things and frowned upon in polite society, but might well be seen in the correspondence of poorer people or for less prestigious business mail.

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 known, apparently originating in Mesopotamia, are cylindrical seals 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. When sealing with wax, colour may or may not be important - European sealing wax seems to have traditionally been red in colour, but a variety of other colours existed and might well be allocated to different classes of documents in official use.

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.

Famous examples include the Seal of Solomon and the Chinese Imperial Seal … which may or may not be public domain artifacts.

The Chinese seal also gives its name to the pidgin term for a customs house or other government regulatory office - the chop house (since this is where your documents - or whatever - receive an official "chop") - prone to confuse those who expect that name to indicate a grill-restaurant.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

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.
    • Low-end magical seals might leave a hard-to-counterfeit residue or only work for the rightful bearer. Higher-end ones might turn a contract or order into a geas or command spirits.
    • Of course, enchanting the wax may be a way to go as well.
  • 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)
  • In some cases, a seal may be associated with an office rather than a person, with the seal being passed down from one holder to the next.
    • …and possibly, the holder of the office being defined as the holder of the seal (particularly if the seal is an artifact, or the office is based on martial skill).
    • A monopoly by royal decree, for example, might well involve the possession of a seal, used to stamp "legitimate" goods - whoever holds the monopoly holds the seal. The same would apply to a variety of offices of state, inspectorates and similar things … themselves frequently bought and sold.
  • Coloured sealing wax may well be significant - as above official documents may be sealed in different colours for different purposes. In this case, a document bearing a black seal may be somewhat alarming (as opposed to rum bearing a black seal, which if supplied by Goslings, is very far from alarming). Private users may have a vanity colour which matches their personal heraldry … which may cause panic if it becomes mixed up with government mail.
    • Potentially some colours of wax may be restricted by sumptuary laws or other government regulations.
    • Uncoloured "natural" wax may also be a thing, and may be a statement in its own right.
  • Sealing with a wafer, as noted above, could come across as "a bit common" or lacking in respect: not the sort of thing a gentleman would be expected to do, but possibly what you might expect on the grocer's bill. Age of sail naval fiction sometimes marks the transition in a naval officer's career when his prize agent/banker suddenly stops sealing correspondence with a wafer and starts showing some respect…
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