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This object is a Tibetan seal from the Asian Ethnographic Collection of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York City. The museum acquired the seal from Roland Koscherak, a dealer of Asian art, in 1951. [1]

Seals are objects used to imprint words, designs, or symbols onto materials such as wax and paper. Ancient seals, thousands of years old, have been found in many places throughout the world. Chinese seals were fairly common by the Qin dynasty (BCE 221-206). [2] It is unclear exactly when and through what circumstances Tibetans began using seals, but the earliest textual evidence of seals used by Tibetans dates back to the 7th century. [3] Material evidence, such as Tibetan documents containing seal impressions, suggests that Tibetans commonly used seals by at least the 8th century. [4]

Authentication has been a major function of seals everywhere they have been used. "A private seal in China," writes Lothar Ledderose, "represents a person in a nutshell; it is the authorized owner's juridical double." [5] Similarly, in Western Europe, beginning in the Middle Ages, seals were used "specifically to certify a signature or to authenticate a document in valid legal terms." [6] In Tibet, according to Wolfgang Bersch, "almost any handwritten communication…was considered invalid, unless it had the imprint of at least one seal." [7]

This seal, from the AMNH collection, is most likely a private seal (as opposed to institutional and official seals ) used for the purpose of authenticating documents—perhaps letters or contracts. DSC_0002.JPGThe seal is smaller than an adult's finger, approximately 6.5 centimeters long by one centimeter deep. The seal, which is made of metal (most likely iron) [8], includes two stamping surfaces, one round and the other square. Double seals, with round and square stamping surfaces, were a generic type in Tibet, and there are many extant examples, including those in the Bertsch collection, some of which are shown below:
There is always a hole in the middle of the seal where the cylindrical half of the round surface and the rectangular half of the square surface meet. This hole was used to hang the seal from the owner's belt with string. The seal would be carried with the owner at all times. Since the seal materially represented a person's identity, one would want to carefully guard his own seal. Forging or using someone else's seal would constitute what is now known as "identity theft." [9]

The circular printing surface of the seal includes a decorative design but no text. Tibetan seals with non-textual designs tended to be circular. This end of the seal is carved in relief. The design includes a border and three circles. The circles possibly represent the Buddha, Sangha, and Dharma. [10] Bersch has noted that circles, which usually appear above, not within, a design may have helped illiterate owners of seals imprint the seal with the text facing in the right direction.
The square printing surface of the seal is etched in intaglio. The etching appears to be text, possibly a letter or letters in phags-pa script. [11] The text may be a personal name. The letters of phags-pa script have square shapes, and thus seals including phags-pa are generally square in shape as well.[12] The quality of the etching on this seal is somewhat crude.
This seal was probably printed onto paper, not onto wax. Because of the small size of the seal and the shallowness of the etching, the design would probably not show up well in wax, which was sometimes used to seal letters. One might construe the remnants of red pigment on the seal to be another indication that the seal was used to print red marks onto paper. It is impossible to say, however, when the pigment was applied; the donor or someone else may have added the red ink. Indeed, in Tibet, people of high status used red ink and people of lower social status used black ink when printing their seals. [13] Because this seal is small and somewhat crude, a person of lower social status probably owned it in Tibet.

Both the circular and square surfaces of the seal would be printed onto a document. Some of the Tibetan documents digitized as part of a Bonn University project include circular and square seals printed closely together at the end of the written text. [14] A double seal, like the one examined here, may have made these imprints.
In the introductory essay to Xizang lidai cangyin, the author writes, "If you have a seal, you have power, no matter if it is civil or religious power. If you obtain a civil seal, then you can become the ruler of a particular area; if you obtain a religious seal, then you can become the leader of a religious group." [15] There is no question that seals, as emblems and agents of worldly and religious authority, can be objects of incredible power. One only need look at the stunningly beautiful and precious seals of Dalai Lamas and emperors to get a sense of this power. Because seals are objects so imbued with power, it is important for the government of the People's Republic of China to control the meanings of historical Tibetan seals. Thus, Chinese publications present seals given to Tibetan politico-religious authorities by Yuan, Ming and Qing emperors as evidence in support of the spurious claim that Tibet was an integral part of China from the Yuan dynasty on. [16]

Not all seals, however, have such a forceful political and historical aura. In addition to precious seals that signified legitimacy and authority, the material archive of Tibetan history includes a far greater number of metal and wooden seals that had comparatively mundane bureaucratic, religious, and personal functions. This is not to say that these seals, such as the one in the AMNH collection, did not have a power of their own. Seals are a technology of representation, and the ability to represent a person, to be constituted as the person's material double, is powerful indeed.

1. Click “Tibet” and then search for “seal” to see this and other Tibetan seals in the collection. There is also a link to the original catalogue page.

2. See, for instance, Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 159.

3. Ou Zhaogui and Qi Mei, eds. Xizang lidai cangyin (Lhasa: Xizang renmin chubanshe, 1991), p. 8.

4. See Tsuguhito Takeuchi, "Three Old Tibetan Contracts in the Sven Hedin Collection," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 57.2 (1994).

5. Ledderose, p. 159.

6. Vallentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2007), p. 41.

7. Wolfgang Bertsch, Notes on Tibetan Minor Seals: With a Catalogue of 93 Seals from the Collection of Wolfgang Bertsch (Gundernhausen, Germany, 1997). This citation of Bertsch, and those that follow, are taken from a revised introduction published online in 2005 through the Bonn University project. To access the article, click on "Tibetan Documents and Letters," and then go to "Seals" and "The Tibetan Seals Collection of Mr. Wolfgang Bertsch, Germany."

8. On Tibet's long tradition of ironworking, see John Clarke, "A History of Ironworking in Tibet: Centers of Production, Styles, and Techniques," in Larocca, ed. Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 21-33).

9. Bertsch.

10. Ibid. See also Donald J. Larocca, "Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet," in Larocca ed. Warriors, p. 16.

11. For more on the phags-pa script see

12. Bertsch.

13. Ibid.

14. See, for instance, seals No. 5, 11, 22, 27, and 30 in the seals database of "Tibetan Documents and Letters." The document fragment pictured here is from seal No. 11 (Document ID: 0059_SBB6682, page 3). Notice that the "Three Jewels"-three round dots-appear above the rim of the circular seal.

15. Ou and Qi, pp. 3-4.

16. See, for instance, Cao Ziqiang and Li Shumin, eds. Zhongguo Xizang wenhua da tuji [Comprehensive picture album of China's Tibetan Culture], volume 1 (Chongqing: Chongqing chubanshe, 2001), pp. 142-250.