Among the most interesting and revealing artifacts discovered from old Mesopotamia room the objects known as cylinder seals. These reasonably small items might be seen today in museum exhibits approximately the world but, maybe owing to your size, they are not given the sort of factor to consider by the general public which bigger and more commanding artifacts, such together reliefs or statuary, enjoy. The cylinder seal, however, to be an integral component of daily life in ancient Mesopotamia and tells the story of the civilization more fully than imperial reliefs or towering statues ever before can.

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Cylinder seals were impression stamps, frequently intricate in design, used throughout Mesopotamia.

Cylinder seals were impression stamps, often quite intricate in design, supplied throughout Mesopotamia. Lock were well-known as kishib in Sumerian and kunukku in Akkadian and also were supplied by everyone, from royals to slaves, in the transaction the business and also sending correspondence. They source in the so late Neolithic duration c. 7600-6000 BCE in the region known this day as Syria (though, follow to other claims, they source in Sumer, modern Iraq, at some point later) and also were made from semiprecious rock (such together marble, obsidian, amethyst, lapis lazuli) or metal (gold or silver). These seals were worn by their owners on strings of animal leather or other material about the neck or wrist or pinned to a garment. Their purpose was to serve as a an individual signature top top a paper or parcel to insurance authenticity or legitimize a organization deal together one signs a letter or kind in the present day. The seal was rolled onto the moist clay of the file as one official, binding signature.

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Cylinder Seal from Kish
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC BY-NC-SA)

Contemporaneous with cylinder seals were stamp seals which were smaller and also less ornate in design. The typical cylinder seal was between 3-4 inches (7-10 cm) lengthy while rubber stamp seals were less than an customs (2 cm) complete and an ext closely resembled the later on signet ring. While some scholars (such as Dr. Stephen Bertman) insurance claim the stamp seal preceded the cylinder seal, rather (such together Dr. Gwendolyn Leick and also Dr. Senta Green) case that the 2 seals were provided contemporaneously. The claim that the stamp seal came an initial would seem to make feeling as the is a much less refined method of sealing a document, and also one would logically assume the the more refined and also ornate cylinder seal occurred from the more primitive rubber stamp seal. If that might be, evidence says that rubber stamp seals were well-known throughout Mesopotamia at the exact same time as cylinder seals, and also especially in the regions recognized today together Syria and Turkey.

Stamp Seals & Cylinder Seals: Which came First?

The concern of whether the cylinder seal replaced the rubber stamp seal or merely became much more popular comes right into play owing to disagreement amongst scholars regarding what, precisely, was being sealed. Part scholars argue that cylinder seals developed from rubber stamp seals owing to the need to seal bullae, hollow, rounded balls the clay which held tokens representing a financial transaction (for example, 4 white pebbles to represent 4 sheep), while stamp seals were supplied to secure level clay envelopes which would certainly be broken open ~ above receipt. The level envelopes, the theory goes, to be used prior to the advance of the bullae, and also so the stamp was an efficient method of securing a blog post or transaction. With the advance of the bullae, a seal which could be rolling onto rounded clay to be required, and also so the cylinder seal developed.

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The difficulty with this concept is that the damaged envelopes found in the present day are plainly stamped through cylinder seals and also that there are bullae i beg your pardon were marked by rubber stamp seals. The the safest answer appears to be that, if the rubber stamp seal may have preceded the cylinder seal, the stamp ongoing in use possibly owing merely to an individual attachment. Bertman notes the cylinder seals "sometimes ended up being heirlooms and as together were passed on indigenous one generation come the next" (231). The same situation could have actually been the case with stamp seals, other than that one must think about the an extremely wide-spread usage of rubber stamp seals together opposed come cylinder seals in ancient Syria and also Turkey, both of which supplied both top top bullae and also clay envelopes. It appears to make sense that the cylinder seal emerged from the rubber stamp seal, and perhaps the did, yet one cannot controversy this case conclusively. The archaeological evidence provides clear that both kinds of seals were offered by the human being of Mesopotamia and were supplied for both envelopes and also bullae containers pre-dating the innovation of cuneiform writing.

One answer to the question is provided by scholar Clemens Reichel in Joshua Engelhardt"s job-related Agency in ancient Writing. Reichel insurance claims the answer come the "which come first" question is as straightforward as the certain needs that the areas of Mesopotamia in sealing correspondence or containers. Reichel notes:

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Unlike the north sealing heritage of utilizing stamp seals, southern Mesopotamians supplied cylinder seals, consisting of stone cylinders right into which seal designs were engraved. The difference in between stamp seal and cylinder seal is much more than a technological one and, in fact, tells us around the an extremely nature that scribal company behind the seal. The minimal space top top the reverse side the a rubber stamp seal also restricted the potential variability in the iconographic arsenal of seal designs. Accordingly, the variety of easily discernible sports on a theme is limited. The surface ar of a cylinder seal, by comparison, offers the "canvas" for a lengthy rectangular image, making that a perfect location to apply an intricate design with "narrative" depictions. Sufficient room expected that the same theme easily can be differed without man or mix-up. This medium, therefore, suited the demands of one increasingly complicated bureaucratic reality which compelled subtle details to determine individual agents in ~ its device (34).

As the administration of Uruk (in Sumer) and also the remainder of southerly Mesopotamia was more complicated and extensive than the of the north, reasonably speaking, it would make sense that southern Mesopotamia would have actually favored the cylinder seal when the stamp seal remained renowned in the north. It likewise resolves the concern of wherein the seals an initial originated since Sumer would certainly have occurred the cylinder seal and ancient Syria the rubber stamp seal fan to their corresponding needs.

Intricacy of the Seals

The cylinder seal come into renowned use during the 4th millennium BCE in the Middle and also Late Uruk Period. The rise in bureaucracy during this period necessitated the kind of insurance of authenticity which this seals noted and, over time they came to be increasingly intricate in design and scope. Uneven the smaller sized stamp seals, cylinder seals provided an artist v the room to check out a certain motif. This motifs not only make clean the identity of the individual that bore the seal but give far-reaching details around their jobs and way of life. Leick writes, "The pictorial scenes the refer to activities such as weaving, attending residential animals, hunting, and apparently ritual actions may suggest spheres of governmental competence within the Uruk economy" (47). This "administrative competence" to be demonstrated v the innovative work that the artist who created the seals.

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Cylinder seals were made through a sealcutter well-known as a burgul in Sumerian and as a purkullu in the Akkadian language. One apprenticed v a understand sealcutter for four years minimum before setting up one"s own shop as a professional. Stephen Bertman to write of a sealcutter"s toolkit discovered in the ruins of the old city of Ugarit, Syria: "In a clay seasoned were found a small copper chisel, two pointed copper gravers (for detail), a whetstone, a borer (for drilling holes), and some seals that had actually not however been completed" (233). The sealcutter additionally used bronze and also flint engraving tools and also drills and also blades to job-related the stone into a seal. Bertman cases that "rather 보다 cutting stormy cylinders indigenous stone, the sealcutters may have actually bought blanks indigenous dealers, including the finishing touch in your workshops" (233). If so, this would typical there to be two varieties of artist at occupational on the seals: those who crafted the empty cylinders indigenous quarried rock and those who did the detailed engraving come personalize the cylinder for a customer.

At some point in the process, either when the blank was developed or ~ it was engraved, holes to be drilled into the cylinder so the the owner could wear it on a wire or pinned come a garment, as Bertman notes, "just such a pinned seal was found resting top top the skeleton chest of Queen Puabi in she grave in ~ Ur" (233). The seal the a queen choose Puabi had actually a gold cap at one finish fastened on through bitumen if those of much less noble standing would have actually their seals capped with much less expensive metal.

The seals were carved in intaglio, a process of carving in ~ the surface ar of the rock so an impression of the carving creates photo in relief. The easiest method to think the this is as a photographic negative. In stimulate to achieve this effect, the artist would have had to turning back the image he want in his mind and also carve accordingly. This required substantial skill and also sealcutters were extremely paid and greatly respected for your craft. There to be no shortage of demand for cylinder seals by the civilization of Mesopotamia. Bertman notes how "2,000 cylinder seals have been recovered" in Mesopotamian digs hence far and that "based on the concept that because that every historical object in a museum at least a hundred still lie buried, some 200,000 together seals from duration alone still await excavation" (231). The sealcutter, therefore, was very much in demand and also a highly professional cutter would have actually lived an extremely comfortably.

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There are two formats of cylinder seal: the Uruk-style and the Jemdet Nasr-style which refer to the motifs used and also the method the seals to be carved. Writer Megan Lewis & Marian Feldman discuss this, writing:

The Uruk-style seals display animals and figures illustrated in an particularly naturalistic fashion, suggesting that the seal carvers were aiming because that expressive clarity. The motifs include ritual narratives including temples, boats and offerings come gods, as well as depictions the the natural world in hierarchical arrangements. They space skillfully cut, detailed, and also their composition often tends to it is in balanced and aesthetically pleasing. The Jemdet Nasr-style seals space less in-depth than Uruk-style seals and also are identified by the hefty use of drills and cutting discs, which create round and also linear marks respectively. Usual motifs native the Jemdet Nasr-style encompass women v pigtails associated in residential labor and herds of animals in front of temples (4).


Cylinder Seal, Horned Animals
Karen Barrett-Wilt (CC BY-NC-SA)

They also note the the Jemdet Nasr-style is no necessarily linked with, nor limited to, the Jemdet Nasr period of 3100-2900 BCE and also "can be discovered in late Uruk period contexts" together well. Lewis & Feldman point out scholar and also archaeologist Hans Nissen regarding the differences between the 2 styles and also their meaning. Nissen claims the two styles have two distinctive functions. Lewis & Feldman write:

The Uruk-style seals were residential or commercial property of, and used to identify, individuals, make it important for every seal to be visually distinctive (Nissen 1977: 19). Lock were supplied to authorize transactions and also control the movement and storage of products (Nissen 1977: 20). As they to be more facility and because of this time-consuming to produce, Nissen says that castle were property of elite members of society who were at the top of the governmental hierarchy (Nissen 1977: 20). In contrast, he suggests that the Jemdet Nasr seals were provided to identify a "legal person" such as an institution, and also not a private individual (Nissen 1977: 19). In this case, it was less crucial for various seals to it is in distinguishable from every other, which allowed the use of recurring motifs (6).

Uses of Cylinder Seals

As listed above, the seals were used by civilization in every strata the Mesopotamian society from the ruling course to the merchant and even to the slave. Lewis and Feldman recognize the four uses the cylinder seals:

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Authenticating or legitimating a transaction (in a similar way to the modern signature)Preventing/restricting accessibility to containers, rooms or housesAmuleticSign of personal identity or professional affiliation

The offers of the seals to be both practical and spiritual. The Lewis and also Feldman list above addresses the handy use the signing one"s name, restricting accessibility only come those enabled to rest the seal, and also as a means of personal identification, or a sort of badge of authority or dedicated occupation. The 3rd use listed, "amuletic", describes the Mesopotamian belief in the seal together an amulet, a type of charm, which could ward off angry spirits and protect one indigenous harm. The seal could also work also to carry one luck and also prosperity. A seal may have actually been engraved with a certain scene from a story or legend around the god or probably with picture of a demon, i m sorry would have meant "powerful spirit" and did not have the universal an unfavorable connotation it has today. The demon Pazuzu, for example, to be a frightening spring creature yet protected pregnant women and also their unborn kids from harm if they to be wearing one amulet through his face carved on it. Back most people who have actually heard of Pazuzu this day associate him with evil, fan to the 1973 Hollywood film The Exorcist, he was a guardian of human beings, also going therefore far regarding draw the worst smells away from the cities and out right into barren locations to dissipate.


Pazuzu Amulet
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC BY-NC-SA)

Significance of Cylinder Seals

A seal was a prized possession and also its loss to be taken seriously.

Whatever the usage one placed the seal to, it to be a prized possession and also its loss was taken together seriously as one this particular day would watch the ns of their credit transaction cards. Bertman to write how, after finding one had lost one"s seal, "the former owner would document the date and time the loss v an main to insure that transactions make after the loss would certainly be invalid" (235). As detailed above, part seals illustrated one"s occupation however others were an ext intimate and revealed one"s personal identity, even one"s name. That is no wonder, then, that human being were so worried over the ns of their seal. One"s an individual identity to be made clear either through the likeness engraved on the seal or through symbols bordering an image. For example, if one to be a weaver one"s occupation would be symbolized by a spider (which weaves a web) and also symbols about the spider image would offer the individual"s name. In the situation of such seals, then, the loss would have actually been as significant to an old Mesopotamian as the ns of one"s personal identification is today and the hazard of "identity theft" simply as good then together it is now.

The seals" use as personal identification is among the many fascinating aspects about them come archaeologists and scholars in the present day. Dr. Senta Green, writing on the attention seals hold for modern day scholarship, notes how historians are interested in these artifacts because "the images carved on seals correctly reflect the pervading artistic styles of the day and the particular region of their use. In various other words, every seal is a little time capsule that what kinds of motifs and also styles were popular during the life time of the owner" (2). She also notes, however, that the identification of the owner is that equal interest in that a modern historian has the opportunity to accomplish someone "in person" who lived end 2,000 years ago. Regarding the iconography that the seals, eco-friendly writes, "each character, gesture, and also decorative aspect can be "read" and reflected back on the owner of the seal, revealing his or she social rank and also even periodically the surname of the owner. Back the very same iconography uncovered on seals deserve to be found on sculpted stelae, terra cotta plaques, wall surface reliefs, and paintings, the most complete compendium exists on the countless seals which have actually survived indigenous antiquity" (2-3). Lewis and Feldman keep in mind that the meaning of the seals" imagery related to three areas:

Specific families, bureaucratic department, or details events related to the administration.Different step of the bureaucratic hierarchy, the thing or persons affiliated in the transaction.The owner or the user the the seal, or details the the transaction - the commodity in question, its source or destination, or a details event relating to its use.

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Even after the development of cuneiform writing c. 3200 BCE the seals continued to be in well-known use. Mesopotamian legal files translated by the scholar Theophile J. Meek always note how, ~ the details that the instance or transaction are videotaped in creating on the clay tablet, the name of the persons affiliated are signed "each preceded by "The seal of..."" (Pritchard, 167-172). The cylinder seal, then, stayed as far-reaching to its owner ~ the advent of creating as it had actually been previously. The icons which once shown the surname of the owner were now replaced by picture writing script and, together Bertman writes, "additional data might include the surname of the owner"s father, the owner"s location and/or occupation, and also the leader or god he served" (235). For this reason although the style and also details of the seals readjusted after the creation of writing, the meaning of the seals go not. Bertman uses an exciting explanation because that this:

The ancients were intimate v something that much more and more has concerned characterize our stays today: impermanence. In a land whereby a raging flood could wash away whole city, the old Mesopotamian interpreted that couple of things - consisting of life itself - room guaranteed and secure. Gilgamesh, we remember, held the fragile an enig of eternal life in his hand just to check out it snatched away. Because that the civilization of Mesopotamia then, the rock cylinder seal was the ultimate symbol of permanence in one impermanent world. Perhaps that is why it inhabited such an essential position in your lives and was worn as a argorial of honor (235).

Cylinder seals in the current day proceed to intrigue and also fascinate scholars, historians, and any who pause to spend time v them in the exhibits in ~ the countless museums about the world. Cylinder seals hold such fascination because they room a glimpse into the past, not simply of a civilization, however of an individual who lived and worked and worried over and enjoyed life in much the same method as human being do today.