By Welby W. Ricks.


A paper read at the Seventeenth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures and Allied Fields, held at Brigham Young University on October 14, 1967.


The earliest writings in the Old World have been found in the Near East, specifically Mesopotamia, where clay was used as the writing tablet since, being hardened by the sun, it is naturally available in a ready-to-use state. But also flat stamps and later roller stamps were used to impress a signature, thus becoming seals. The designs or insignia impressed on clay tablets with such seals were commonly purely geometric, but some were pictographic.


Cylinder seals were made in three different styles:  1) with handles like a rolling pin, 2) with slight concave depressions at each end for holding between one s fingers, and 3) with a hole through the center lengthwise for the use of a stick or wire to support and roll the stamp.


Cylinder seals have been found in Mesopotamia dating from before 3000 BC down to the downfall of Babylon in 539 BC. They have been found in such abundance that it has been assumed that nearly every person, and certainly every person of importance, carried his seal with him wherever he went. Wills, declarations, sales of property, and other documents, all in the form of clay tablets, were regularly “signed” by rolling a cylinder seal over the tablet while it was still soft, i.e., before it was baked. Even doors were sealed in this way. When leaving one’s house or shop for any length of time, one would simply slap a pat of wet clay on the door in the latch area and roll his seal over it, thereby “locking” the door. When he returned, if the pat of clay had been broken, he knew that someone had broken in. This custom may seem strange to us, but is not our custom of locking glass windows or doors just as strange? If we leave and return to find the glass broken, do we not also conclude that someone has broken in? The “locked” idea is basically within people’s minds, and so was it also in ancient times.


In the New World, especially Mexico, Central America, and Peru, flat and roller stamps date back also to ancient times, though not as early as in the Old World. Similarities as well as differences exist between the uses of stamps in the two parts of the world. Before the Spanish conquest in the New World, stamps were used to impress designs on skin, cloth, paper, and pottery. In the New World also, stamps were generally made of baked clay. Several, however, have been found made from other materials, such as wood, stone (two examples from Yucatan), copper (examples from Patzcuaro and Xochiniilco, central Mexico), and gold. The fact that wood deteriorates much more rapidly than baked clay may account for the sparsity of wooden stamps found today as compared with the abundant supply of clay stamps. The occasional occurrence of differing arbitrary symbols causes unusual interest, since the vast majority of stamps present a definite design of repeating elements.



It is interesting to note that the New World Archaeological Foundation of Brigham Young University found a cache of roller stamps in a stone box in a temple complex at Chiapa de Corzo dating back to Preclassic times. The location and the hiding of the cache would indicate that much religious significance must have been attached to these stamps. All of them appear to be arbitrary symbols.


In the July 1966 issue of American Antiquity, a very interesting article by David H. Kelley tells of the finding in 1948 at Tlatilco of a “cylinder seal” or roller stamp, 8.5 cm. long and 3.5 cm. in diameter, which was associated with a type “D” figurine, identifying it as belonging to the “Olmec” horizon (i.e., c. 1000-500 BC):


The seal is in three registers with one end completely preserved and the other partly preserved. Unfortunately, part of one register is broken away. The other two are complete. All three registers clearly carry sequences of arbitrary symbols which are surely part of a hitherto unknown writing system. . . Except for another seal [with picture writing, also said to have come from Tlatilco] . . . this is the first clear cut evidence of [preclassic] writing from the Valley of Mexico. Chronologically, it may well be the earliest writing known from Mesoamerica. In a typological sense, insofar as it is possible to make such judgments about an un-deciphered system, it seems more advanced than any of the other known Mesoamerican systems. Most notable is the complete absence of any recognizable pictographs. In later Mesoamerican systems, the three dots ( ) would stand for the number three and the dotted cross ( ) would stand for Venus, as it did among












the Mayas. These symbols, however, are also known in the Old World scripts. By themselves, neither of them is adequate to connect this cylinder seal with any other writing system.


A few stamps have been selected here for the reader’s study and comparison. But let me point out that not all are from the same time period. Therefore, there may or may not be any connections among them. The most significant of all is seen in Figure 2, which was reported by Dr. Kelley.





Childe, V. Gordon

1957 New Light on the Most Ancient East. Grove Press, Inc.: New York. 255 pp.

Enciso, Jorge

1953 Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York, pp. 34, 40, 109.

Ferguson, Thomas Stuart

1958 One Fold and One Shepherd. Books of California: San Francisco. 405 pp.

Kelley, David H.

1966 “A Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco,” American Antiquity, Vol. 31, No. 5, Part 1 (July), pp.  744-746.  Society for American Archaeology:  Salt Lake City.

Kidder, A. V.

1947 The Artifacts of Uaxactun Guatemala. Carnegie Institution of Washington:  Washington, D.C., p. 40.

Lothrop, Samuel Kirkland

1926  Pottery of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Vol. II. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation:  New York, p. 378.

Vaillant, Suzannah B. and George C.

1934  Excavations at Gualu pita. The American Museum of Natural History: New York, p. 101.