As the last great Iranian ruler before the advent
of Islam, the Sasanian dynasty (224-642 AD) is
best remembered for its distinctive cultural
expressions and the longevity of its rule. With an
immense territory stretching from Transcaucasia
to the Indus Valley, Sasanians were particularly
engaged in intense trade and exchange, of
which, sealstones and bullae are an interesting
Bullae (from the latin Bulla-ae) are clay or
bitumen impression of seals used as voucher
that were usually attached to documents or – in
fewer instances- parcels (or the strings used to
bound them) and showed the identity of the
author or witness of the document , or the owner
of the merchandise.
While a number of clay bullae from the Sasanian
era have been discovered at various Sasanian
sites including Takht-e Suleiman and Qasr-e
Abu Nasr, many seal impressions have been
recovered in Transoxiana, bearing inscriptions in
Sogdian. Bullae are important historical
documents in that they provide valuable
information on Sasanian onomastics, personal
names, government offices and religious
positions. Their wealth of information is
particular poignant, when considering that
relatively little material evidence has so far come
to light from the Sasanian period, besides the
vestiges of architectural religious complexes.
The bulla, used as a voucher, was originally
attached to strings that once wrapped the
document or letter. Then it was often broken and
discarded, once the document was to be opened.
Yet collections of bullae, found in deposits are
known to have been indeed stored in archives.
The impressions of Sasanian seals, preserved on
clay bullae suggest that the seals functioned as
validation of documents as as guarantees of
exchanged goods and services both in an
administrative context and in private society.
Sasanian bullae such as the one here illustrated
have a convex face and a relatively flat back with,
sometimes, traces of perforations or grooves left
the strings that attached the bulla to the sealed
Scholars seem to agree on the typology and
purpose of bullae in both civil and domestic
environments; administrative ones for instance,
were generally un-iconic and exclusively
epigraphic, giving the names of administrative
provinces and the titles of offices such as those
of finance and justice, both posts held by the
Zoroastrian clergy. On the other hand, those
bullae used for royals and important
functionaries generally bear the owner’s bust
accompanied by an inscription giving the his
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.
The bulla here illustrated portrays an argali ram
within a beaded medallion, his neck surrounded
by fluttering ribbons suspended behind. Such
imagery is comparable to several textile
depictions (like the fragment in the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York) datable to the
Sasanian period and encountered throughout
Central Asia, especially in Sogdiana.
Unlike the Greek and Roman examples, Sasanian
bullae of high quality or functional importance
usually bear inscriptions, providing a proper
name, often followed by a patronymic and
occasionally with a pious or auspicious phrase
such as ‘be generous’ or ‘trust in god’. The
glyptic scripts used for palhavi, the middle
Persian language of the Sasanians, are based on
the lapidary script, found on Sasanian reliefs of
the 3rd century, and the cursive script used in
chancery and for commercial activities. Other
scripts found on bullae include Parthian,
Sogdian, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic.
Azarpay, G. “Bullae from the Palhavi archive at
the University of California, Berkeley”, Eran ud
Aneran, Studies Presented to Boris Ilich Marshak,
Buenos Aires, 2003
Bivar, A.D.H, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic
Stamp Seals in the British Museum, Stamp Seals
II, The Sassanian Dynasty, London 1969.
Brunner C.J., Sasanian Seals in the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, 1978.
Gignoux, P. “ A propos de quelques inscriptions
et bulles sassanides”, Histoire et culte de l’Asie
Central preislamique, CNRS, Paris, 1991: 66-67.
R.N. Frye, "Sasanian clay sealings in the
collection of Mohsen Foroughi," Iranica Antiqua,
VIII, 1968, p. 118-132, pl. XXIV-XXXI.
R. N. Frye, "Sasanian clay sealings in the Baghdad
Museum," Sumer, 26, 1970, p. 237-240. - pl.
Ph. Gignoux - R. Gyselen, Bulles et sceaux
sassanides de diverses collections, [Cahiers de
Studia Iranica, n° 4] Paris, Association pour
l'Avancement des études iraniennes, 1987.
We are grateful to Dr Rika Gyselen, CNRS, Paris,
for her help in identifying the bulla.