As the last great Iranian dynasty 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
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.
The middle Persian word for bulla, gil muhrag is
known from an Iranian loanword in Aramaic
Talmud, while a number of clay bullae from the
Sasanian era have been discovered not only at
various Sasanian sites including Takht-e
Suleiman and qasr-e Abu Nasr but also 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Bullae are important historical documents in that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 some
architectural religious complexes.
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
Administrative bullae 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 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.
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.
The bulla here illustrated features one of the four
generals of the cardinal points, known also as
spahbed. A horseman in armour –the clibanarius
type- seen in profile from the right, holding a
long lance in his right hand, while the sheath of
a sword hangs from his waist. The pahlavi
inscription in lapidary script on two lines can be
translated as follows: “Wahram,who has acquired
the name Husraw, son of Adurmah, chief of...and
eunuch and (having the honorary title) well-
omened (is) Husraw, grandee, Eran-spahbed of
the side of the south”.
Gignoux, P. “ A propos de quelques inscriptions
et bulles sassanides”, Histoire et culte de l’Asie
Central preislamique, CNRS, Paris, 1991: 66-67.
R. Gyselen, The Four Generals of the Sasanian
Empire: Some Sigillographic Evidence, Rome,
ISIAO, 2001: p.37, seal no. 2a
We are thankful to Dr Rika Gyselen, CNRS, Paris,
for her help in identifying the bulla.