Brief cuneiform legends on seals begin to appear already in the Early Dynastic period (Ashm 1931.89a, 152) and become common in Akkadian times. The earliest inscriptions identified the seal owner’s name and perhaps some details of personal identity, generally father’s name and/or profession. For example: ‘Bēlī-kāšid/scribe/son of Aḫu-ma’ reads one Akkadian period seal inscription (VR 1981.43, Keel-Leu and Teissier 2004: 364, no. 63). Sometimes a short pronouncement of loyalty to god or a king would appear. These may have represented private displays of devotion by the individuals who had the seals carved, or may have stemmed from the king himself and been given out to deserving subjects (Zettler: 1977). Short prayers begin to appear in the Kassite period. However, by the Neo-Assyrian period, inscriptions, even merely of names, fell out of fashion on most seals. Seals of kings or gods, generally large, might still carry a lengthy inscription. Sennacherib’s seal (6.4x2.8 cms, with its decorative cap) featured a lengthy inscription pronouncing itself the NA4.KIŠIB NAM.MEŠ, ‘seal of destinies’ and proclaiming that mim-mu-u i-kan-na-ku-u2 la in-ni, ‘what ever he seals is not to be changed’ (Wiseman 1958: 15, Pl. 49). Seals have always had a close relationship with writing. Inscriptions make this relationship stronger, but significantly less subtle. There is often an inverse relationship between length or prominence of inscription and originality of glyptic: as Collon puts it, ‘the less distinctive the seal, the more necessary the inscription as a method of identification’ (1982: 22).
Collon, D. 1982. Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals, Vol. II. London: British Museum Publications.
Keel-Leu, H. and Teissier, B. 2004. Die vorderasiatischen Rollsiegel der Sammlungen «Bibel+Orient» der Universität Freiburg Schweiz. Fribourg: Academic Press.
Wiseman, D. J. 1958. The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq.
Zettler, R. L. 1977. ‘The Sargonic Royal Seal: A Consideration of Sealing in Mesopotamia’. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Gibson and R. D. Biggs. Malibu: Undena Publications: 33-40.