Ancient intersections between art & security

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I’m working on a scene in Civil Mage where the protagonist is sneaking through a temple storehouse and I was wondering how a culture without complex lock and key mechanisms might secure storehouses against theft. The answer seems to be stamps / seals, and the different uses different cultures put stamps to throughout history is pretty fascinating.

Fun Facts

  • Asian “chops” (sealing stamps) were originally carved from jade during the Quin Dynasty, then dipped into red ink and imprinted into wax or clay. They are still hand-carved today, usually from stone.
  • Mesoptoamian seals were not exclusive to the literate elite; they date from the Neolithic era, were sometimes inherited as heirlooms, and pretty much everyone used them during transactions, even slaves.
  • The island of Chios stamped its coins with pictures of amphorae, and stamped its amphorae with coin designs. So meta!
  • The first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system was the Penny Black in the United Kingdom.
  • The Asante of Ghana carve stamps out of gourds; artists then use these stamps to decorate adinkira cloth, which was historically only worn by kings.

Body Art

2,000 years before the Aztecs, people from Tlatilco used stamps to apply ink and paint to objects like pottery, paper and clothing—even their bodies. Most were clay, but some were stone, copper, or bone. Many early stamps were shaped like rollers and had parallel lines at the edges to act as margin guides for printing on long thin clothing items like sashes and belts. [Read More]

Printed Promises

After the 5th century BCE, some shipping centers in the Aegean islands started stamping amphorae with production dates, manufacturer information, and origin information. These stamps also functioned as capacity claims, similar to how a bag of chips in the USA might commit to being 16oz. [Read More]

Portable Records

The emergence of social inequality and people’s changing relationships with domesticated animals can be traced in a society’s shift away from permanent animal art — like wall paintings, plastered reliefs, and statue installations — toward portable art like stamp seals and pottery. [Read More]

Geometric Proof

The oldest known seal stamp (“impression”) predates writing. The 7,000 year old geometric pattern found in Israel had two sections, indicating that two different people might have been involved in marking shipments, seal off buildings, and protect letters from being read. [Read more]

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about couriers & correspondence.


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