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Catalogue of Islamic Seals and Talismans

A catalogue of seals and talismans housed at the Ashmolean from the 8th to 19th century Islamic world, by Ludvik Kalus (published Oxford, 1986).

Islamic Seals and Talismans by Ludvik Kalus


Subject of the investigation

The common denominator of most of the objects presented in this catalogue is that they are gems of small size. These gems are engraved with an inscription, and incidentally also with decorative motifs, executed in 'negative' or in ‘positive’, i.e. in the opposite direction of reading in the first case and in the usual direction of reading in the second case. The direction of the inscription indicates the function of the objects: the gems inscribed with an inscription in ‘negative’ are to be considered as seals, the gems inscribed in ‘positive’ are to be considered as objects serving as charms or to be worn as jewels. The term generally used for these latter is talisman. To these gems, some other objects have been added which are of different materials but have the same function as the two categories just mentioned. These are, for example, seals in metal or in glass, and talismans in glass or having the shape of a metal ring or being incidentally the real jewels.

The collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford contains two hundred and twenty-five objects; the majority are gems of various sorts, but some of them are of glass [1] or metal [2]. According to the direction of the inscription which is often the only engraved element, there are one hundred and thirty seals and ninety-four talismans. Five of these are composed of several elements forming bracelets [3]. In addition there is one object with an inscription in the usual direction (in ‘positive’) which is very dose to the group of seals. It is a bull in baked clay, considered as a seal-stamp (as opposed to a seal-matrix) [4].

Attribution and dating

As is indicated by the title of this catalogue, all the described objects belong to the Islamic world. It is not always easy to determine the region of their origin, but they are mostly from the Asiatic Islamic regions, from Turkey to India. That they belong to the Islamic world is evident from the presence of inscriptions in Arabic script, executed in ‘positive’ or 'negative' according to the function of the object. These inscriptions are mostly in Arabic, some of them are in Persian or in Turkish. One seal has a name in Armenian script and the same name in Arabic script as well [5].

With the exception of recent examples which often bear a date, accurate dating of the seals and talismans is very difficult owing to the lack of comparative material. For the time being, therefore, close dating and a detailed typology is out of the question. In general, however, it can be said that the objects in the Ashmolean collection cover the whole Islamic period, virtually from its beginning up to the early twentieth century. This is certainly true of the seals; on the other hand, the talismans of this collection are in general relatively recent, from the sixteenth century A.D. onwards.

Principles of classification and description

The objects presented in this catalogue are divided into two principal groups which are the seals on the one hand and the talismans on the other. In the collection of the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris, there is another principal group, containing bulls. But the Ashmolean Museum collection has only one bull, so I have included it in the group of seals. The classification within each principal group does not correspond exactly to that in the Cabinet des Médailles collection, because of the peculiarities of each one of them. It would have been useless to try to keep the same system of classification for both collections, as some groups are not represented. All classifications are therefore provisional for the moment.

The purpose of the description of every object is to record all its morphological, epigraphical, and when they exist, ornamental elements. The method is the same as that used for the Cabinet des Médailles Catalogue. First, I determine the kind of material and describe the shape of the object. Then I present the inscription, its script and text with its translation. If there is any decorative motif, I try to give its description. Finally, I give the size which is always in millimetres. Under the size is the accession number, and I also indicate the origin of the object if it is known. All the descriptions are done from 'positives’ i.e. from the casts in the case of the seals and from the objects themselves in the case of the talismans. Bibliographical data is added where appropriate. Any comments are placed after the description.

The description of the shape is expressed verbally without recourse to any code. In fact, since the study of Islamic gems and related objects is only at its beginning, it is too soon to establish a table containing all the possible shapes. A table with a code system, such as already exists for the Sasanian seals [6], for example, will only be possible after the publication of a sufficient number of objects.


Given the lack of comparative material, the only purpose of this catalogue is the publication of the objects which form the Ashmolean collection [7]. But this catalogue must not remain unique. I hope there will soon be other descriptive catalogues of other important collections of Islamic seals and talismans. They will be the indispensable basis for a typological classification leading to a history of the evolution of these objects and of the texts of their inscriptions. Furthermore, such a classification will also provide a sound basis for dating and attributing each object. Finally, works of synthesis will give decisive help to our knowledge of Islamic sigillography and the 'science’ of talismans.

Practical indications. In presenting the inscriptions, we use the following symbols:

. . .       no reading proposed

xxxxx   obliterated

[      ]    reliable restoration

[    ?]    unreliable restoration

[?]        uncertain reading

The translation of Quranic quotations is from A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, I-II London, New York, 1955. The Names of God and some religious legends are from O. Codrington, A Manual of Musalman Numismatics, London 1904 (republished in Chicago, 1970). Where the verse numbers of the Flügel and Cairo editions of the Arabic text of the Quran differ, they are both given, in that order.


[1] Nos. I.2.1.2 [EA1980.17] and II.2.1 (III, IV) [LI1008.7 and LI1008.108]

[2] Nos. I.3.1-10, II.1.2 [LI897.1], II.1.7 [LI897.4], II.1.83 [LI897.5], II.1.84 [LI897.6] and II.1.85 [LI897.7]

[3] Nos. II.2.1-5.

[4] No. I.4.1 [EAX.3463]

[5] No. I.2.2.23 (A) [EA1980.16]

[6] See Rïka GYSELEN, Une classification des cachets sasanides selon la forme, in Studia Iranica, V, 1, 1976, pp.139-46

[7] More information concerning seals, bulls and talismans can be found in my Bibliothèque Nationale, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Catalogue des cachets, bulles et talismans islamiques, Paris, 1981.


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