Table of Contents
This page will give a general overview of seal glyptic as described in the general literature on the topic.
For the most part, the imagery on seals can be situated within a typology of certain 'type-scenes'. This repertoire of scenes and iconography changed and developed over time and varied geographically and stylistically. A brief chronological overview follows.
The Uruk and Jemdet Nasr styles existed simultaneously and exhibit vastly different style and subjects. Uruk seals depict everyday administrative or temple activities on the one hand (VA 4207, VA 10893, BM 116722), or smooth designs of curves, rosettes, and animals in pattern (VA 2031). Jemdet Nasr seals, on the other hand, feature a mixture of very simple, linear geometric patterns, either entirely abstract or sometimes in the shape of repeated animals or insects (Ashm 1931.207, Ashm 1928.454). The other great theme was the ‘pig-tailed ladies’ evidently female figures engaged in tasks such as weaving or pottery manufacture (Ashm 1949.878, VA 4247). Contest scenes, which will be one of the most persistent themes in cylinder seal design, depict combat between lion and bull (BM 119308), which a hero later joins.
Moving into the Early Dynastic Period, we find two great themes: contests and banquets. Contests now feature human combatants for the first time, or the partially human ‘bull-man’ (Ashm 1929.267). Banquets show feasting, usually with one socially elevated individual apparent, and often feature women (BM 122137). The earliest inscriptions on seals appear in this period. During the Akkadian period mythological scenes begin to appear, making use of a limited and well-defined repertoire of characters and attributes (Ashm 1931.105; Ashm 1891.455; BM 89119; VA 3329). These are of particularly tantalising interest because, as Porada puts it ‘this is the only period when Mesopotamian art produced extensive narrative representations based on a mythology of which, however, no contemporary literary documents survive’ (1960: 116). Contest scenes, still popular, gain a new dynamism (BM 104490; BM 134763). The presentation scene, in which a human individual is presented (usually by an intercessory goddess) to a divine figure, originates here (Ashm 1952.32). It would become one of the most popular type-scenes. In the Ur III period the presentation scene would become standardised in respect to even the smallest details, solidifying around a limited visual vocabulary (Collon 1982: 129).
Presentation scenes remain popular, although with variations in arrangement and iconographical details. Inscriptions become longer and begin to fill more of the space (BM 89897). This tendency is even more pronounced in the Kassite period where prayers sometimes fill almost the entire space (BM 89853; BM 114704 in which there is so much text there is only space for a thin line of insects). The Middle Assyrian period saw the introduction of a new motif, an animal pacing at or leaping up to a tree to feed (BM 89557; BM 102535).
From the start of the Neo-Assyrian period the popularity of inscriptions declines. Contest scenes are popular, as is the related hunting scene (Ashm 1954.742). Scenes of ritual often echo exactly the type-scenes found in full-scale wall reliefs (Ashm 1932.319). Beginning particularly in the Neo-Babylonian period, seal designs become increasingly spare, with few elements and much blank space (BM 89813; VA 3884). This tendency becomes even more pronounced in the Achaemenid period (BM 89816; BM 89528). This is undoubtedly an influence from the stamp seal. As cuneiform writing declined, the stamp seal was once more becoming the norm, as it had been before the invention of the cylinder seal.
Interpretation of seal images
A case study: glyphic of the Late Uruk/Jemdet Nasr period
There have been various attempts to link the images on seals to its role and function. An examination of the very earliest period and the Uruk/Jemdet Nasr problem offers an ideal illustration. The two styles were in use simultaneously. In reference to the physical object, Jemdet Nasr style cylinders tend to be small and squat while Uruk style cylinders are extremely large. There have been various theories about the roles each occupied. Nissen proposed that the Jemdet Nasr seals were used by ‘legal persons’ (that is, institutions) while Uruk seals belonged to real persons. Jemdet Nasr seals, with their limited range of iconography could not easily be distinguished from one another and therefore suggest that they only needed to be identified as a certain type (i.e. a seal of an institution) while Uruk seals, with their tremendous scope for individuation were designed to be absolutely distinctive, like a fingerprint (Nissen, et al 1993: 18). Brandes proposed a relationship between the subject matter depicted on Uruk seals and branches of administration. Thus, for instance, seals depicting rows of animals would have been used by administrators in charge of animal husbandry or hunting, those with boats would have been used by fisheries and irrigation administration. Seals with lines of prisoners may have been used to seal booty (Brandes 1979: 115-233). Building on this idea, Collon suggests that the Uruk style was associated with predominantly male temple institutions, while the Jemdet Nasr style was associated with predominantly female temple institutions. The subject matter in each style reflects the differing tasks and areas of expertise: male institutions dealing with raw-materials and produce, female institutions with production of manufactured goods, such as spinning, weaving and pottery-making (2005: 16).
Brandes, M. A. 1979. Siegelabrollungen aus den archaischen Bauschichten in Uruk-Warka. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner.
Collon, D. 2005. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East (2nd Ed). London: British Museum Press.
1982. Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals, Vol. II. London: British Museum Publications.
Nissen, H. J., Damerow, P., and Englund, R. K. 1993. Archaic Bookkeeping: Early Writing and Techniques of the Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.