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?  According to the British Museum, “Cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BC in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) or south-western Iran, and were used as an administrative tool, as jewellery and as magical amulets until around 300 BC. Cylinder seals were linked to the invention of cuneiform writing on clay, and when this spread to other areas of the Near East, the use of cylinder seals spread too.”  Administrative purposes? Can we be more specific? Why, yes!  Cylinder seals were pressed onto clay vessels before they were fired, indicating ownership or at least the person who sealed the object. They were used like a signature, or a notary stamp, on official documents, too.  In some places they were also used to seal financial records or other official documents after they were completed to prove that no one had opened them. They were even used on doors to seal rooms. And when cuneiform (or other languages) text was used, the name of the owner of the seal was evident.  For more on administrative purposes, read this article by Bonnie Magness-Gardiner.

I can’t go on without showing you another one:

Lapis Lazuli cylinder seal, from Ur, southern Iraq about 2600 BC, British Museum

Look familiar? Think Standard of Ur! (my last blog post)

And the magical amulets function?  We can be a bit more specific about that, too.  They sometimes stood in for the owner, and the images of deities or other spirits on them were sometimes protective, as this one may have been:

Jasper cylinder seal: monstrous lions and lion-headed eagles, Mesopotamia, Uruk Period (4100 BC–3000 BC), Louvre, Paris.

As for jewelry, if they were made of a particularly precious or beautiful stone and worn as a pin or a necklace, well, there you go.  They were also jewelry.

Sumerian Lapis Lazuli Cylinder Seal, Early Akkadian, ca. 2400-2200 B.C.

Let’s look at a couple more.  I love the simplicity of the designs:

Cylinder Seal Impression, running goats or gazelles, Ur, ca. 3100-2900 BCE

But the complexity, too, is sometimes remarkable (and fun!):

Akkadian Cylinder Seal of Adda (c. 2250 B.C.), British Museum

I have to admit, I kind of want one, hanging around my neck, to use here and there.  The impression would be impermanent, but wouldn’t it be fun to make your own impression in the mud banks of a river, or maybe even in the sand at the beach?  It would wash away, no harm done, but you would have made your own little mark. Pretty cool.

British Museum quote:

Zettler (cylinder seal iconography) quote:


4 thoughts on “Cylinder Seals: Make Your Mark!

  1. Karen,

    Great Post and a Great New setup. I love the dark background 😉 It’s like matting the works of art.
    I am so glad you wrote about these seals, I am, fascinated by them as well. They are like tiny, little mysteries waiting to be unraveled…


  2. Just came across your blog while googleing about cylinder seals and need to say I’m feeling joyful! Loved the idea about making a small cylinder and put it on a necklace 🙂 will try that anytime, perhaps attach a small piece of clay on a wall and ‘stamp’ it, it will be my little ‘secret’ (not so secret). Sorry if I sound too crazy, my apologies! 😛

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