Seals and Sealings

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Seals and Sealings


The Earliest Seals. The impressing of carved stones into clay to seal containers had a long tradition in Mesopotamia, with the earliest evidence found in Syria and dating to the seventh millennium b.c.e. In the fourth millennium b.c.e. various styles of stamp seals were made. In northern Mesopotamia, seals, which probably also served as amulets, were shaped like animals and may have represented votive offerings of the animals depicted since they are found in temples such as at Tell Brak. Northern Mesopotamian stamp seals of other shapes had animal motifs carved on them. In southern Mesopotamia stamp seals also had animal motifs, while in neighboring regions of Iran, geometric, animal, human, and demonic imagery—as well as heroes with animals—appeared on stamp seals.

Cylinder Seals. During the second half of the fourth millennium b.c.e., stamp seals were largely, though not completely, superseded by cylinder seals in Mesopotamia and southern Iran. A small cylinder of stone was carved with a design. (It is possible that some cylinder seals were made of wood, but none has survived.) Rolling a cylinder seal on a sufficient quantity of damp clay produced a frieze-like image. The invention of the cylinder seal was probably connected with new developments in recording and administration that accompanied the rise of the first cities and major institutions such as the temple. The shape of the seal allowed the user to cover a large, curved surface area and to employ a wider range of motifs, which produced

some of the earliest narrative art. Seals of the Late Uruk period (circa 3300 - circa 2900 b.c.e.) may be divided into two main groups. The first comprises large cylinders with modeled, naturalistic, and rounded forms that depict real and imaginary animals either in heraldic groups or being hunted and herded, often by the priest-king. The second group includes much smaller cylinders that are drilled or incised with characteristic pigtailed figures engaged in domestic or agricultural work. Also in this group are seals with rows of fish, scorpions, or gazelles. At the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e. similar schematic designs on cylinder seals were used over a wide area, a result of trade relations from southwestern Iran through Syria to Egypt. By the early third millennium b.c.e. the designs had become even more schematized; they are called Piedmont because they are found at sites along the foothills of the Zagros and southern Turkey. Patterns were based on lozenges, circles, and chevrons. Some seals in southern Mesopotamia used cuneiform signs, apparently to represent groups of city names on so-called City Seals.

Early Themes. In the Early Dynastic period (circa 2900 - circa 2340 b.c.e.) the variety of scenes on cylinder seals became larger. One of the two main themes on these seals, many of which are made of lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan, is a banquet scene. Such scenes, which also appear on contemporary stone plaques, are representations of ceremonies in which music appears to have been an integral part. The banquet seals from the Royal Cemetery of Ur (circa 2600 - circa 2500 b.c.e.) may have been associated exclusively with women. The other common theme is contests of strength among animals, heroes, and, later, bull-men. By the time of the Akkadian Empire (circa 2340 - circa 2200 b.c.e.) the contest had split into two antithetical groups of well-matched opponents and perhaps represents a cosmic battle between order and chaos. Occasionally, brief cuneiform inscriptions appear in the field.

Akkadian Seals. The Akkadian period produced some of the most skillfully carved and iconographically varied seals. An early style with stocky well-defined forms was replaced by a mature, naturalistically modeled style. Seals in this style often depict balanced combats involving heroes, bull-men, bulls, lions, and water buffalo. There are also presentation scenes showing worshipers before deities and mythological scenes. Increasingly more common, cuneiform inscriptions, typically identifying the seal owner, are now enclosed within a frame. One of the finest cylinder seals belonged to a scribe of king Shar-kali-sharri (circa 2217 - circa 2193 b.c.e.). The extraordinary carving depicts a nude hero pouring liquid for a water buffalo. The scene is shown with a mirror image, the backs of the two animals supporting the inscription panel.

Presentation Scenes. With the Ur III period (circa 2112 - circa 2004 b.c.e.) uniform seals were produced, distinguished by a delicate carving already present in late Akkadian court seals. The iconography is restricted to combats, libations before plants (a fertility symbol), and presentations to deities, or the deified king seated on a stool. It has been suggested that seal owners and rulers were given specific features in these presentation scenes. Ownership of such seals, which were highly standardized in their iconography and inscription formulae, seems to have been restricted to a class of high public officials.

Old Assyrian and Old Babylonian Seals, circa 2000 -1595 B.C.E. In the first half of the second millennium b.c.e. different styles of cylinder seals existed contemporaneously across Mesopotamia. Early on, Old Assyrian merchant colonies were established in Anatolia by traders from the north Mesopotamian city of Ashur. These merchants documented their activities in cuneiform on clay tablets sealed with cylinders carved in a shallow, angular, and linear style; the iconography blends Mesopotamian and Anatolian subjects. In Mesopotamia the repertory consisted mainly of scenes with standing deities and the king, either

robed and holding an offering or wearing a kilt and holding a mace. These Old Babylonian seals are typically made of hematite, a hard gray-black stone. Small symbols such as fish and dwarfs are characteristic features. From around 1750 b.c.e. the gradual increase in the use of the drill and cutting disc resulted in a deterioration of the style.

Kassite, Mitannian, and Middle Assyrian Seals. With the end of Hammurabi’s dynasty around 1595 b.c.e. southern Mesopotamia came under the domination of the Kassites. Their seals fall into two main styles. One, a development of the late Old Babylonian style, is linear with a worshiper and/or a deity and symbols beside a lengthy inscription, often a prayer. The other is more modeled and naturalistic, with pastoral or mythological scenes. Across northern Mesopotamia and north Syria during the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries b.c.e., the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni held sway. Throughout the kingdom and beyond, workshops produced inexpensive brightly colored seals made of sintered quartz, commonly referred to as faience. (The term sintered describes a mass of nonmetallic material that has been heated until it is fused. Faience is sintered material that has been glazed.) In Assyria, which became the new power in northern Mesopotamia as Mitanni declined, the cylinder seals consisted of shallow, linear carvings of fights between imaginary beasts. These were replaced in the thirteenth century by finely modeled animals beside trees, combats between a hero and real or imaginary animals, and rituals before symbols or deities. Much of this iconography continued in the repertory of the first millennium b.c.e.

Stamp Seals. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934 -610 b.c.e.) and the Late Babylonian period (610-539 b.c.e.), cylinder seals began to be replaced with stamp seals. This change was largely related to the rapid spread of the Aramaic language, which could be written with just twenty-two characters in ink on parchment or papyrus. Such documents were most readily rolled and secured by string. A small lump of clay over the knotted string did not require a cylinder seal. Nonetheless, styles of cylinder seals can be identified during this period. A cut style and modeled style appeared across Mesopotamia. Differences between contemporary Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian carving cannot be clearly appreciated, but there are iconographic distinctions, such as different styles of garments and headdress. Favorite themes include hunts and hunting rituals, banquets, combats, processions of real and imaginary animals, worship of deities and symbols, and ceremonies beside the so-called sacred tree. The most common symbols—the spade of Marduk, the stylus of Nabu, the fish and goat-fish of Ea, the moon crescent of Sin on a pole, and the star of Ishtar—demonstrate continuity in imagery over three thousand years.

The Achaemenid Period. The administrators of the Achaemenid Empire (538-331 b.c.e.) maintained an anachronistic use of cylinder seals. Their wide range of iconographic influences suggests the extent of the empire and its foreign contacts, from Greece and Egypt in the west to India in the east. Early Achaemenid documents from Babylon have seal impressions that show continuity of Neo-and Late Babylonian worship scenes. The impressions of this period were followed by an increasing appearance of images of the royal hero—perhaps owing to a desire to emulate the Neo-Assyrian royal seal that showed an Assyrian king stabbing a rampant lion. One group of seals, in what is called the “Court Style,” is similar in style to the Persepolis sculptures. On later tablets there is increasing use of stamp and cylinder seals in hybrid Graeco-Persian styles and, occasionally, in purely Greek style. Stamp seals and newly introduced metal finger rings with engraved almond-shaped bezels tended to be reserved for private, nonadministrative use. Their styles and iconography are similar to those of contemporary cylinders: especially a royal hero in combat with real or imaginary beasts. By the end of the fourth century b.c.e., the cylinder seal was virtually unused.

The Hellenistic Period (331 b.c.e.-129 b.c.e.). Following the death of Alexander and the Wars of the Successors (323-301 b.c.e.), Syria, Mesopotamia, and for a while, Iran, were ruled by one of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus I (311-281 b.c.e.), and his dynasty. The Seleucids fostered a fusion of Greek and traditional native cultures. On engraved-metal finger rings and stone stamps with convex sealing surfaces classical Greek figures appear side by side with traditional Mesopotamian demons and monsters. The signs of the Babylonian zodiac, individually and in astrologically significant combinations, became popular motifs.

Legacy. Throughout the Parthian Empire (247 b.c.e.-224B.C.E.), which at times included all of Iran and Mesopotamia, stamp seals were in wide use. These seals are difficult to date. It is clear from seal impressions found at Parthian sites that many seals were set into signet rings, probably made of metal, and were generally incised with an animal or plant motif. These motifs continued to be popular on the seals of the succeeding Sasanian Empire (224-651 C.E.), when both domed seals and seal-rings carved in hard colorful stones were popular. Ring bezels of carnelian or garnet were often carved with a portrait head and an inscription in Pahlavi.


Dominique Collon, First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East (London: British Museum, 1987).

Henri Frankfort, Cylinder Seals: A Documentary Essay on the Art and Religion of the Ancient Near East (London: Macmillan, 1939).

Holly Pittman, “Cylinder Seals and Scarabs in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1589-1603.

Ronald Wallenfels, Uruk: Hellenistic Seal Impressions in the Yale Babylonian Collection I. Cuneiform Tablets, Ausgrabungen in Uruk-Warka Endbe-richte 19 (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1994).