A gavel is a small, ceremonial mallet traditionally used in both court proceedings and parliamentary procedure. Traditionally made out of hardwood, its use can indicate a number of things depending on the setting in which it is used. No matter the situation, the gavel is a symbol of power, the implications being that the person using it is has the highest authority.
It is difficult to determine when this type of mallet came into use. The Western world can trace the modern gavel to medieval England. It is likely, though, that it developed independently in many cultures hundreds of years prior, most likely a stone that was banged against a table or other object to gain the attention of a group. As law and governments developed, the gavel evolved into the instrument used today in courtrooms and deliberative bodies worldwide.
During a trial or other court proceeding, a judge will use a gavel to both open and adjourn court. For example, even though a judge may only declare a ten-minute recess for a jury trial, he or she still strikes the gavel to indicate that court is temporally adjourned. The judge uses it once again at the end of recess to indicate that court is back in session. Once the jury has come to a verdict, the judge strikes the gavel for a final time to indicate the trial is over. Besides these official uses, it is a convenient tool to bring a disorderly courtroom back to order.
The gavel plays a similar role in a parliamentary body. Like in the courtroom, tapping it once brings the meeting to order. Also, a single hard strike is a signal to restore order during a break in procedure or other commotion. A unique feature of a parliamentary gavel is that its status as a symbol of power is just as, if not more, important than its role during proceedings. For example, if power changes hands after an election, the parliamentary body will generally have a ceremony where the gavel is handed over to the government's new legislative leaders.
Outside of the rule of law, the gavel is also used at less formal meetings. The most common is an auction. Striking of the gavel by an auctioneer indicates the final sale of an item up for bid. Many private organizations with governing bodies also use gavels in ways similar to those of a parliament.