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Cylinder seal and modern impression: nude bearded hero wrestling with a water buffalo; bull-man wrestling with lion

Met curator Yelena Rakic on reading into Cylinder seal and modern impression: nude bearded hero wrestling with a water buffalo; bull-man wrestling with lion from Mesopotamia,  c. 2250–2150 B.C.E.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I LOVE ancient cylinder seals! I especially love how intact these are after all that time. I do wonder what the process to make these would have been like since they had to be made with "mirror image" etchings?

    What different types of stones would have been used for cylinder seals as well? Presumably the image would begin to fade I imagine if the stone was not hard or durable enough?
    (16 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user weber
      I was wondering about the materials used also. The link to the met museum page shows a different, much later seal and says it's made of steatite (as are all of the "related objects" that page links to) and looking up steatite--it's soapstone! Makes sense, soft enough to carve. Then apparently they would heat the finished carving to create a much harder, more durable surface (that takes it from 1 to 6ish on the Moh scale). But, wow, the detail here. The makers were truly skilled craftsmen.
      (16 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user ave
    is cuneiform pronounced kyoo-nee-form or kyoo-nay-form?
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Collin Thomson
    Is there any signifigance of the water buffalo and the lion? Are they symbolic?
    (4 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user brittany.splittstoesser
    Is the figure fighting the human-headed bull similar to a griffin?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user stpatrick749
    The subtitles are moving faster than the video. Anyone know why?
    (1 vote)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user hollysmoot30
    What does she mean by "often you can't see the imagery?" Like it's carved in such low relief that it doesn't show up when rolled?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Anto Q
    Is cuneiform chars related in any form chinese chars? The inscriptions on the cylinder really looked like chinese chars and made me wonder if chinese chars derived directly from cuneiform ones.
    (1 vote)
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  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Jaimee Orton
    what dose it mean. 'Slave of the house of the storm god?'
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

Cylinder seals, we have around five hundred of them, started to be used in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, in tandem with writing. They were rolled either a clay tablet or on a lump of clay that would have been used to guard against unauthorized opening of a storage jar or to serve as a lock. And in the case of a tablet, the seal was really used like a signature, to authenticate the contents of what the cuneiform inscription said. It’s carved in reverse to create a raised impression. Often, you can’t see the whole imagery. What’s the point of the imagery, if you can’t see it? One idea is that it’s the actual act of rolling out the seal that has the meaning, the act of participating in an agreement or enclosing something. The subject matter of this seal is a contest scene: two pairs of evenly-matched contestants. One pair depicts a human-headed bull, and he’s grappling with a lion. Then the other pair of contestants is the bearded nude hero with curls, and he is grappling with the water buffalo. Between these two pairs of contestants is an encased cuneiform inscription. The signs seem to read, “Slave of the house of the storm god.” So, this person could be a subordinate. And then there are also these filler motifs: A star and a crescent moon, perhaps a bovid. There are hundreds of this iconography of the contest scene within the Akkadian administration. It stood for the power of the dynasty. Just this balance between the human, the animal, the composite creatures – no one wins. It does seem to indicate that there’s the balance of forces of nature. The history of the ancient Near East is very long, yet so little actually remains. There are parts of reliefs of palaces, fragments of pots, some sculpture. We’re only seeing a fragment of something. With this seal you see the entire work of art. To be able to hold something and realize that someone else held it and used it four thousand years ago, that is compelling.