It graced the governor's podium and countless state documents, but until last spring only archivists ever really noticed the Great Seal of Maryland.

The seal came to the attention of state officials after the state's savings and loan industry came crashing down in May, bringing with it the Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp., a private insurance fund that used a version of the seal as its emblem.

MSSIC, state officials were quick to point out, was not backed by the state.

However, thousands of enraged depositors who saw their life savings frozen in savings and loans said that because of the seal they had been led to believe that the state's full faith and credit stood behind their accounts.

Now, three bills would limit the use of the seal to elected state officials and state agencies and courts.

The bills would boost the penalty for misuse of the seal to at least a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

Maryland's Great Seal depicts a farmer and a fisherman standing on either side of a shield decorated with the state's gold-and-black colors and the arms of the state's venerable Crossland and Calvert families.

Some versions of that trademark, Secretary of State Lorraine M. Sheehan told a legislative committee hearing yesterday, have appeared on the armbands of shopping mall security guards, on a brochure published by Blue Cross-Blue Shield promoting a health plan for state employes and in countless other places.

"It's just not clear (under current law) what you can do," Sheehan said. "My concern is that the (law) is misleading. All we want is a clarification."