Bulla (seal)

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For other uses, see Bulla.

A Bulla (or clay envelope) and its contents on display at the Louvre. Uruk period (4000 BC–3100 BC).

Bulla (plural bullae, Middle Persian: gil muhrag) is the term used to refer to inscribed pieces of clay used by the Sumerians beginning in the 8th millennia BCE. They were used for agricultural transactions as a form of identification and for tamper-proofing. They served as receipts and encapsulated clay tokens that represented the quantity and types of goods borrowed. After the creation of Papyrus and parchment they developed into inscribed pieces of clay or metal used to seal documents or parcels.[1] This suggests evidence about some of the earliest forms of specialization in the ancient world, moving from a purely agricultural society to a settled society. Therefore, it is likely only skilled and trained individuals could have created this form of administrative system.[2]


During the period 8,000–7,500 BCE, the Sumerian agriculturalists needed a way to keep records of their animals and goods. Small clay tokens were formed and shaped by the palms to represent certain animals and goods.[3]

Clay tokens allowed for agriculturalists to keep track of animals and food that had been traded, stored, and/or sold. Because grain production became such a major part of life, they needed to store their extra grain in shared facilities and account for their food. This clay token system went unchanged for about 4,000 years until the tokens started to become more elaborate in appearance. The tokens were similar in size, material, and color but the markings had more of a variety of shapes. As the growth of goods being produced grew and the exchanging of goods became more common, changes to tokens were made to keep up with the growth.[4]

Transactions for trading needed to be accounted for efficiently, so the clay tokens were placed in a clay ball (bulla) to keep the tokens together. This helped with dishonesty and kept all the tokens together. In order to account for the tokens, the bulla would have to be crushed to reveal their content. This introduced the idea of impressing the token onto the wet bulla before it dried,to insure trust that the tokens hadn't been tampered with and for anyone to know what exactly was in the bulla without having to break it. Eventually seals were impressed into the clay alongside of the impression of the tokens. Each party had its own unique seal to identify them. Seals would not only identify individuals, but it would also identify their office.

Precursor to writing[edit]

Clay accounting tokens used inside of a Bulla.

As the clay tokens and bulla became difficult to store and handle, impressing the tokens on clay tablets became increasingly popular. Clay tablets were easier to store, neater to write on, and less likely to be lost. Impressing the tokens on clay tablets was more efficient but using a stylus to inscribe the impression on the clay tablet was shown to be even more efficient and much faster for the scribes. Around 3,100 BCE signs expressing numerical value began. By now, clay tokens became obsolete, a thing of the past.[5]

During the early Bronze Age, urban economies developed due to urban settlements and the development of trade. The recording of trade became necessary because production, shipments, inventories, and wage payments had to be noted, and merchants needed to preserve records of their transactions. Tokens were replaced by pictographic tablets that could express not only "how many" but also "where, when, and how." More information was able to be given on these tablets and look like modern day receipts. This introduces the idea of earliest form of writing, Sumerian cuneiform, the first official writing system, in 3,100 BCE.[6]

Precursor to mathematics and accounting[edit]

Babylonian clay tablet YBC 7289 with annotations. The diagonal displays an approximation of the square root of 2 in four sexagesimal figures, 1 24 51 10, which is good to about six decimal digits.
1 + 24/60 + 51/602 + 10/603 = 1.41421296... The tablet also gives an example where one side of the square is 30, and the resulting diagonal is 42 25 35 or 42.4263888...

The Sumerians developed a complex system of metrology as early as 3000 BCE. From 2600 BCE. onwards, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables, division problems, and geometry on clay tablets. The earliest evidences of the Babylonian numerals also date back to this period.[7] This evidence may suggest that Bulla evolved into early forms of mathematics and accounting. Denise Schmandt-Besserat of the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s is noted for her research and theory of the evolution of Bullae into mathematics. She suggested that the earliest tokens were simple shapes and were comparatively unadorned; they represented basic agricultural commodities such as grain and sheep. They also had a specific shape to represent the quantity of a particular item. For example, two jars of oil would be represented by two ovoids, three jars by three ovoids, and so on.[7]

With the development of cities came a more complex economy and more complex social structures. This reflected in the tokens, which begin to appear in a much greater diversity of shapes and are given more complicated designs of incisions and holes. [7]

They collected tokens and stored them for future promised transactions, or as a record of a past transaction. The practice of storing tokens in clay envelopes was the more significant for the development of mathematics. Because the clay envelope was not transparent, therefore if you forget what is inside, the only way to find out is to break open the seal.[8] The resolution of this problem was to impress the tokens on the outside of the envelope before sealing them inside. The outside marks could then serve as a reference and the envelope could be broken open to check the actual contents if there was any dispute about the marks. [7]

Simple tokens were impressed to make marks on a solid lump, or tablet, of clay. Only the tablet was then kept. Because the complicated shapes and designs of the complex tokens, they did not transfer well to the tablet, an image of the token was drawn on the clay. This practice, in place by about 3,000 BCE, afforded greater ease of use and storage, at a price of a certain loss of security. These impressed or drawn marks on the clay tablets were the beginnings of a numeration system. [7]

Clay bullae as seals[edit]

As papyrus and parchment gradually replaced clay tablets, bullae became the new encasement for scrolls of this new writing style.[9] Documents were split into two halves, separated in the middle by multiple perforations. The top half was rolled into a scroll and a cord would wrap this section tight, going through the perforations. Clay was impressed on the cord to avoid unauthorized reading and the bottom of the document was then wrapped around the initial scroll. Bullae found in dig sites that appear concave and smooth and unmarked are thus these initial molds of clay placed around the interior scroll. A new cord was introduced around the document and a bullae attached to the ends of the cord, on the knot of the cord, or around the cord in its entirety, forming a ring. These outer rings could not guarantee unauthorized access to the documents as one could simply slip out the parchment and replace the bullae "ring" with one of their choosing.

Multi-stamped bulla (~1" diam.) formerly surrounding a dangling cord; unprovenanced Redondo Beach, California collection of antiquities

Designs were inscribed on the clay seals to mark ownership, identify witnesses or partners in commerce, or control of government officials. The later “official” seals were usually larger than private seals and could be designated seals of office, with inscriptions only identifying the office.[10] In many cases, fingerprints of the person who made the impression remain visible near the border of the seal in the clay. Various forms of bullae have been found in archeological digs.

Archeological findings and digs[edit]

The earliest known tokens are those from two sites in the Zagros region of Iran: Tepe Asiab and Ganj-i-Dareh Tepe. Schemandt-Besserat was able to work back in time and saw the same shapes from cuneiform to pictographs to these tokens. Most of these tokens have no translation though.[11]

Later, tokens transitioned into cylinders. Around the sixth century BCE, cylinders were used in international exchanges between empires. A famous one discovered is the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder is famous for its suggested evidence of Cyrus' policy of repatriation of the Hebrew people after their captivity in Babylon, as the text refers to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples.[12]

Front view of a barrel-shaped clay cylinder resting on a stand. The cylinder is covered with lines of cuneiform textRear view of a barrel-shaped clay cylinder resting on a stand. The cylinder is covered with lines of cuneiform text

A number of clay bullae from the Sasanian era have been discovered at various Sasanian sites assisting in identifying personal names, government offices, and religious positions. [13] Scholars seem to agree on the typology and purpose of bullae in both civil and domestic environments. The bullae for the administration were generally un-iconic and exclusively epigraphic. It gave the names of administrative provinces and the titles of offices such as those of finance and justice. On the other hand, those bullae used for royals and important functionaries generally bear the owner’s bust accompanied by an inscription giving the name and title. Private seals and impressions, distinguished by a single motif sometimes accompanied by an inscription, provide a rich variety of iconographic patterns, largely reflecting the contemporary cultural and religious traditions of Iran, though only indirectly explained by the inscriptions accompany them.[14]


French-American archaeologist, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, focused much of her career on the discovery of over 8,000 ancient tokens found in the Middle East. She visited museums all around the world studying tablets, bricks, and pots and was surprised to find clay marble spheres dating from 10,000–6,000 BCE. in every museum. There wasn’t much information on these clay marbles and archaeologists didn’t know too much about them. Schmandt-Besserat put aside her research of clay and spent the rest of her career to figuring out the use of these clay marbles.

Within a year of studying these unknown clay marbles, Schemandt-Besserat discovered that they were tokens that were supposed to be grouped together and formed some sort of counting system. The transition between hunting and gathering to settling and agriculture took place between 8,000–7,500 BCE and the need for storing grains and goods was necessary. Shemandt-Besserat discovered that these tokens were used to count their grown food.[15]

Metal bullae and later usage[edit]

The term bulla was eventually applied to seals made out of metal. Although the most typical form of bulla was made of lead, it was sometimes made of gold, as the ones affixed to the several Golden Bulls issued by the Byzantine Emperors, Holy Roman Emperors, and various other monarchs in the Middle Ages. A particularly famous type of lead bulla is the one affixed to important documents issued by the Pope, called Papal bulls for the type of seal, where the bulla has an image of Saints Peter and Paul on one side and the name of the issuing Pope on the other.

Bullae continued through the Seleucid period of Mesopotamia into Islamic times until paper and wax seals gradually replaced the clay and metal bullae.

Gallery of bullae

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Van De Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-4051-4911-2. 
  2. ^ Van De Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-4051-4911-2. 
  3. ^ "Ancient Scripts: Sumerian." Ancient Scripts: Sumerian. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 October 2014.
  4. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. Before Writing. Austin: U of Texas, 1992. Print.
  5. ^ Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
  6. ^ Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
  7. ^ a b c d e Eleanor Robson, D.J. Melville. Tokens: the origin of mathematics. Mesopotamian Mathematics. published by St. Lawrence University. Retrieved 2015-10-30. 
  8. ^ "Tokens: the origin of mathematics". Mesopotamian Mathematics. 
  9. ^ McDowell, Robert (January 1935). Stamped and Inscribed Objects from Seleucia on the Tigris. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. p. 2. 
  10. ^ "Bullae". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  11. ^ Denise Schmandt-Besserat. How Writing Came about. Austin: U of Texas, 1996. Print.
  12. ^ Becking, Bob (2006). "We All Returned as One!": Critical Notes on the Myth of the Mass Return". Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-57506-104-7. 
  13. ^ "Bullae". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  14. ^ "Sassanian Bulla With Beribboned Ram: Description". The Barakat Gallery Store. 
  15. ^ Denise Schmandt-Besserat. How Writing Came about. Austin: U of Texas, 1996. Print.

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