Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
- The Sumerians and Mesopotamia
- Sumer, an introduction
- White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk
- Archaeological reconstructions
- Warka Vase
- Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar
- Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar
- Perforated Relief of Ur-Nanshe
- Cylinder seals
- The Standard of Ur
- Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves
- Standard of Ur
- The ‘Ram in a Thicket’
By Dr. Senta German
Signed with a cylinder seal
Cuneiform was used for official accounting, governmental and theological pronouncements and a wide range of correspondence. Nearly all of these documents required a formal “signature,” the impression of a cylinder seal.
A cylinder seal is a small pierced object, like a long round bead, carved in reverse (intaglio) and hung on strings of fiber or leather. These often beautiful objects were ubiquitous in the Ancient Near East and remain a unique record of individuals from this era. Each seal was owned by one person and was used and held by them in particularly intimate ways, such as strung on a necklace or bracelet.
When a signature was required, the seal was taken out and rolled on the pliable clay document, leaving behind the positive impression of the reverse images carved into it. However, some seals were valued not for the impression they made, but instead, for the magic they were thought to possess or for their beauty.
The first use of cylinder seals in the Ancient Near East dates to earlier than the invention of cuneiform, to the Late Neolithic period (7600–6000 B.C.E.) in Syria. However, what is most remarkable about cylinder seals is their scale and the beauty of the semi-precious stones from which they were carved. The images and inscriptions on these stones can be measured in millimeters and feature incredible detail.
The stones from which the cylinder seals were carved include agate, chalcedony, lapis lazuli, steatite, limestone, marble, quartz, serpentine, hematite and jasper; for the most distinguished there were seals of gold and silver. To study Ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals is to enter a uniquely beautiful, personal and detailed miniature universe of the remote past, but one which was directly connected to a vast array of individual actions, both mundane and momentous.
Why cylinder seals are interesting
Art historians are particularly interested in cylinder seals for at least two reasons. First, it is believed that the images carved on seals accurately reflect the pervading artistic styles of the day and the particular region of their use. In other words, each seal is a small time capsule of what sorts of motifs and styles were popular during the lifetime of the owner. These seals, which survive in great numbers, offer important information to understand the developing artistic styles of the Ancient Near East.
The second reason why art historians are interested in cylinder seals is because of the iconography (the study of the content of a work of art). Each character, gesture and decorative element can be “read” and reflected back on the owner of the seal, revealing his or her social rank and even sometimes the name of the owner. Although the same iconography found on seals can be found on carved , terra cotta plaques, wall reliefs and paintings, its most complete compendium exists on the thousands of seals which have survived from antiquity.
Learn more about writing and cylinder seals in a Reframing Art History chapter about the Ancient Near East
Essay by Dr. Senta German
Want to join the conversation?
- "...the range of languages that were written with cuneiform across history of the Ancient Near East is vast and includes Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Hurrian, Urartian, Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, Hatian and Elamite."
If this is true, then what do modern art historians do to distinguish which culture (Akkadia, Amorite etc.) produced a cuneiform stele or written record of some kind?(11 votes)
- This is usually done by linguists (or linguistically trained art historians), and just because it's written in cuneiform doesn't mean that the languages are indistinguishable. After all, English, French, Spanish, Latin and German also all use the same writing system, but a linguist could determine based on the text ("deux vaches"/"zwei Kühe"/"dos vacas"/"two cows") what culture made it. This is no different for cuneiform languages. :-)(44 votes)
- is cuneiform going to be popular enough to be taught in schools(3 votes)
- At the university level you can study, and even take degrees, in cuneiform, as well as other ancient languages of the Near East.(3 votes)
- Where only for people of wealth or high ranking officials? Is there any evidence that women had seals?(3 votes)
- Queen Puabi of Ur had her own cylinder seals. See: http://www.penn.museum/sites/iraq/?page_id=28(1 vote)
- Is there a range in size of these seals? They say beads, but the detail with which these are fashioned would make me think they are sizable.(2 votes)
- Seals vary in size. Some are quite small, half an inch in height for example and some fairly large, several inches.(3 votes)
- What were the seals made out of?(1 vote)
- Generally hardstones, including hematite, obsidian, steatite, amethyst, lapis lazuli, and carnelian.(4 votes)
- how did arceoligests descover sumarea(1 vote)
- Nothing was ever really "lost", the region has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, people just built on top of older stuff. Basically all that needed to be done was to find a promising site and start digging.(2 votes)
- What are they made out of?(1 vote)
- What kinds of tools did they use to carve that small? I'm imagining tiny hooks and scrapers like dentist's tools...(1 vote)
- why did they use such elabret pictcers for seals(1 vote)
- Elaboration was used, in part, to differentiate one person's seal from another's. It also could have been just for the joy of beauty.(1 vote)