Cylinder Seals: Make Your Mark!

I can’t get cylinder seals out of my mind.  (I bet that’s a sentence that’s rarely, if ever, been written!)  Like all art that I love, they appeal to me aesthetically, and they have a good story.  Let’s start with the story.

When I think cylinder seal, I think Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization” in what is now   Iraq, although they were used throughout the ancient Near East.  Cylinders were usually made out of stone, a design was carved into the cylinder, then it was rolled in clay to create an impression.

A cylinder:

Mesopotamian Cylinder Seal, circa 2350-2150 BC
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

And the impression:

Mesopotamian Cylinder Seal Impression, circa 2350-2150 BC
University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

“A central “monstrous” bull-man with the lower torso of two animals joined at the abdomen grasps upended lions with each hand. Heroes, in turn, battle the lions, holding them by the leg with one hand and putting a foot on the animals’ neck. One of the heroes is nude and the other girdled; both of their heads are in profile.” (More about this impression from Richard Zettler.)  Take a minute to look at this impression — look at the peoples’ faces, the lions’ mouths and muscular rear legs.  I particularly like the arms, including the elbows, of the central figure — why was no detail added here?  Maybe because it wasn’t necessary — we understand the image without detail here? Or was this area less important?  And think about this:  they were little, only 2-10cm in length.  That’s 3/4 of an inch to 4 inches.  Can you imagine carving this kind of detail on a small cylinder?  The mind reels!

What were cylinder seals used for?  Continue reading

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