Use of Seals

The Origin of Sealing

The earliest use of cylinder seals dates to the mid-fourth millennium, the beginning of the Uruk period, when seals were first rolled on hollow clay balls inside which numerical tokens were kept. Tokens representing the number, and possibly the type, of goods being counted were thus protected within the clay, which was then sealed all over its surface with a cylinder seal (Nissen et al 1993: 12-13). After sealing, the balls were sometimes impressed with signs on the outer surface referencing the tokens within. This means of storing and protecting information soon gave way to the earliest tablets, all of them numerical in nature. These tablets were sealed before being inscribed, a practice not so different from that of impressing signs over sealed clay bullae. At the same time, seals were being used to mark the clay stoppers that covered storage containers, or the bulla that hung from strings attached to jars, baskets, bundles, or even store-room doors (Collon 2005: 13).

Who Used Seals?

In the Uruk period, it seems clear that sealing was essentially an institutional practice. Individuals sealed on behalf of the administration. Even if one particular official could be chased down through his seal, it seems clear he owned and used this seal in his capacity as a representative of a certain office, not as a private individual.

It is uncertain when seals began to represent the individual as individual, not merely in terms of his relation to an institution. The first inscriptions of personal names (along with information about parentage and/or profession) appear on cylinder seals in the Early Dynastic period, during the Fara period (Nissen 1993: 17). This might imply a more individualised sense of the relationship of owner to seal. But seals in the Early Dynastic period seem also to have been heavily linked to institutions, the temple and, from ED IIIa onwards, the palace. This is supported by Rathje’s analysis of the seals found in the royal cemetery at Ur. He was interested in the possible relationship between iconography and the owner’s role or profession, and his evidence suggests that there was some such correlation (1977). Thus, at least for the individuals buried in the royal cemetery there, it seems that seals and office were linked. This might have been by choice, but it is also likely that there was some official sense of what seal was suitable for what office. Additionally, in the Sargonic Period we find evidence that the so-called arad2-zu seals (‘your servant’) mighthave been given out by kings, perhaps as rewards. Zettler hypothesises that ‘such seals are seals of office’, whose flow was restricted by the king (1979: 33).

Personal and purely institutional seals existed alongside one another in all but the very earliest periods. In the Ur III period, for example, we find suggestions that official seals could be rolled in an official’s absence (that is, that it was the mark of his office, not his personal involvement that mattered), but at the same time we find a seal belonging to a slave (NATN 679). The latter was certainly an individual with no authority stemming from an office or an institution who nonetheless had his own personal seal (Steinkeller 1979: 44-45).

Where Were Seals Rolled?

Although we have seen that seals were being used on tablets already in the Uruk period, after the end of this period seals disappear from tablets except in very rare instances. Fewer than ten sealed tablets dating from the Sargonic period have been identified. These are all administrative in nature and come from a scattered geographical area. Two sealed but blank tablets were found at Tello (AOT b 404, 406), and another one at Umm el-Jerab (Ashm 1932.344). Zettler suggest that these may have been trial rollings or may have been carried by an agent ‘to prove the authority of a verbal message’ (1979: 37). Sealed but uninscribed pieces of clay like this are found in small numbers in all periods and their function in not known (Collon 2005: 119).

Seals were still used extensively in the Early Dynastic and Akkadian periods, on jar sealings or on bullae. These bullae were simply flat lumps of clay which apparently hung loose around the necks of jars or baskets (see for example VA 6298, Ashm 1939.332). We frequently find impressions of string, jar lips, or basket edges on these bullae. On rare occasions a brief cuneiform inscription may be found beside or over the sealing, giving details of ownership or contents (for example, VAT 7187). Because of the interests of museum curators and cuneiformists, sealings on tablets and envelopes tend to occupy the greatest part of our attention. However, as we continue examining sealing practices, the continued use of seal on containers, bullae, or even buildings (Larsen 1977: 94-95) should not be overlooked.

From the Ur III period onwards, the full possibilities of sealing begin to be realised. No longer is sealing used only for economic and administrative matters. A seal is now a guarantee in any sense: economic, yes, but also legal or personal. Seals reappear on tablets, but more commonly on envelopes around a tablet (Steinkeller 1979: 45). In legal documents, an envelope generally contained a summary of the tablet (sometimes repeating the entire contents) and an indication of persons involved together with seal impressions (Renger 1977: 75). The envelope fell out of favour for the most part by the first millennium. Instead, legal and administrative texts were often written in duplicate (Greengus 1995: 475).

Although sealing a tablet before use was the norm in the earliest periods, by the Ur III period tablets were sealed after being written. This is perhaps a reflection of the changing and expanding nature of sealing practices. The practice of sealing before inscribing rather than after can be seen as an illustration of the characteristic strong temple institutions of the Uruk period, a world in which essentially only temple administration was involved in the sealing business, and only in limited areas. In the more varied landscape of the Ur III period and onwards, this was no longer the case.

There is evidence that the presence of a seal on a tablet could be invoked later on with genuine force (Renger 1977: 76, 79). Whether that force was always legal, or merely social is not entirely clear (i.e., whether a sealed promise was legally enforceable because of its sealing). A sealing was designed to hold the sealer to account, as is indicated by the fact that the party required to seal seems generally to have been the one with the most reason to protest later on—the recipient of goods in economic texts, the seller of items in sale documents (Steinkeller 1977: 45; Renger 1977: 76).

Irregular Sealing Practices

In all periods, the confidence in sealing as a system worked well enough that irregularities could be permitted without concern. Unusual sealing practices could be permitted in instances in which one did not have seal (either permanently or perhaps simply did not have on one’s person). Renger’s survey of sealing on legal documents from the Old Babylonian period onwards finds that the most common practice, consistently attested up through the Achaemenid period, was the use of either a garment fringe or, more commonly, fingernail marks in place of a seal. In the OB period, cuneiform inscriptions next to these marks describe them as ‘seal of PN’, although in later period they will be described as ‘his fingernail/garment instead of his seal’. In the OB period crude clay seals could be hastily manufactured for the purpose (Renger 1977; Keel-Leu and Tessier 2004: 96, 105). The sealings of these can be distinguished by their general air of hasty assemblage, but particularly by their complete lack of iconography (Charpin 1980: 12-15; for an example see Kist 165).

Borrowing seals is also a well-attested practice. Steinkeller even cites an instance in which a stand-in sealed with a different stand-in seal: ‘PN-2, the overseer, rolled the seal of PN-3 in place (of the seal) of PN, the foreman’. PN was responsible for the sealing of the tablet, but PN-2 sealed in his stead using for this purpose a seal of still another individual!’ (1977: 43). Sometimes the substitution of a seal is pointed out in an explanatory cuneiform inscription, such as that above, other times it is left unreferenced. It is not clear on what basis a stand-in seal was chosen. Collon examines an example from Middle Bronze Age Alalakh in which one such ‘substitute’ seal was that of a witness’s father. But on the same tablet, another four apparently borrowed seals have no readily obvious connection to the witnesses for whom they stand (1975: 156). Indeed, which borrowed seal is standing in for which witness is not specified. Singer’s study of borrowed seals at Emar shows the practice to have been extremely widespread: some 16 of 72 published tablets (20%) which he examined exhibit discrepancies between the names on the tablet and the names on the rolled seals. Singer further found that in ‘the great majority of cases, in this and in other ME [Emar and Middle Euphrates] corpora, the nature of the relationship between the owner of the seal and its user is simply unknown’ (1995: 57). In her study of Old Assyrian sealing practices at Kanesh, Teissier detected a ‘definite trend for borrowed or second hand seals to be used by people with the same first name’ (1994: 46). It is also not clear if the substitute seal-owner was implicated as a guarantor for the individual to whom he had leant it, or if it was merely that some sealing act was required and the seal owner incurred no risks no donating his seal for the cause.

If we could answer this question, we would not only understand this practice better, we would also understand the purpose of sealing much better. The former case would suggest that sealing was a practical activity designed to create a system in which individuals could be held accountable for legal or economic promises. The latter case would suggest that the act of sealing was a performative legal action that did its work simply by having been done, even if with a substitute seal. We know that many Mesopotamian legal practices involved actions that were to be performed alongside (Greengus 1995: 475). We don’t have any sense that the action of sealing had such power in any defined or official sense. Indeed, legal documents were themselves nothing more than a record of an agreement, not agreement-creators themselves: as Renger phrases it ‘an instrument of evidence’ but without ‘dispositive force’ (1977: 76). As sealing was most closely linked with the written aspect of the process, it perhaps had more of this testimonial rather than dispositive value. All the same, through long association with acts of certification and officialising, it seems likely that sealing probably picked up some performative power of its own, at least in the common imagination. The fact that fingernails or garments could stand in for seals also suggests that something about the act of impressing an item closely linked to one’s identity had value in itself, even were it not identifiable later on.

Seals as Objects

Apart from their ‘practical’ uses in sealing, seals were also valuable simply as objects. The reuse of old seals was common and seals could be passed down in a family over generations. A particularly astonishing example of seal reuse is the case of an evidently Old Assyrian seal belonging to the god Aššur which was rolled on the tablets containing the vassal treaties of King Esarhaddon in the Neo-Assyrian period. It is inscribed with the legend ‘Of Aššur, of the temple of the City’. These same treaties are also impressed with heirloom seals of less ancient provenance, a seal of the Middle Assyrian period and a seal of Esarhaddon’s father, Sennacherib (Wiseman 1958: 14-22). For a king, reuse of an older royal seals undoubtedly sent a strong message of his royal legitimacy (see Auerbach 1991).

The preference for colorful or exotic materials for seals clearly indicates that there were aesthetic concerns not only in the impression a seal left behind, but in how it would look pinned to a breast, worn around a neck, or displayed as a sign of office. This is also indicated by the adornments that many seals carried which had no effect on its sealed impression, such as ornamental caps. Marcus has noted that at Iron Age II settlement Hasanlu in northwest Iran imported Assyrian-style cylinders were used solely as decorative status markers and never actually rolled, as indicated by the complete lack of seal impressions from the settlement of any bearing these non-native designs (1990: 189-191). Particularly interesting are a handful of rock crystal seals in which the inside perforation was painted (Sax 1991). This delicate and difficult work must have required an expert hand, and a patron with the clout to obtain one.

Seals likely also served a talismanic function. The appearance of short prayers on cylinder seal inscriptions beginning in the Kassite period shows that the powerful benevolent potential of a seal was explicitly recognised. A typical prayer would praise a god and ask briefly for intercession on the owner’s behalf: ‘O Ninlil, Lady of the Lands, in your marriage bed, in the abode of you delight, intercede for me with Enlil, (your) beloved. Mili-Shipak, shatammu on Ninmah’ (Porada 1981: 60, no. 32; Brinkman 1981: 75 for inscription). Or: ‘Šamaš, the great lord,/the merciful god,/who opens the fount of plenty,/a slave who reveres him/(is) the holder of this seal’ (VR 1981.202, Keel-Leu and Teissier 2004: 369, no. 137). Thus an individual always wore a prayer to his god on his person. Given the strong association between individual identity and seal, this prayer would be almost as if coming from the owner’s own lips.

Works Cited

Auerbach, E. 1991. ‘Heirloom seals and political legitimacy in Late Bronze Age Syria’. Akkadica 74-75: 19-36.

Brinkman, J. A. 1981. ‘The Western Asiatic Seals Found at Thebes’. Archiv für Orientforschung 28: 73-78.

Charpin, D. 1980. Archives familiales et propriété privée en Babylonie ancienne: étude des documents de «Tell Sifr». Genève: Droz.

Collon, D. 2005. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East (2nd Ed). London: British Museum Press. 1975. The Seal Impressions from Tell Atchana/Alalakh. Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker.

Greengus, S. 1995. ‘Legal and Social Institutions of Ancient Mesopotamia’. In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. I. Ed. J. Sasson, et al. New York: Scribners: 469-484.

Keel-Leu, H. and Teissier, B. 2004. Die vorderasiatischen Rollsiegel der Sammlungen «Bibel+Orient» der Universität Freiburg Schweiz. Fribourg: Academic Press.

Larsen, M. T. 1977. ‘Seal Use in the Old Assyrian Period’. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Gibson and R. D. Biggs. Malibu: Undena Publications: 89-106.

Marcus, M. I. 1990. ‘Glyptic Style and Seal Function: the Hasanlu Collection’. In Aegean Seals, Sealings and Administration. Ed. T. G. Palaima. Liège : Université de Liège, Histoire de l'art et archéologie de la Grèce antique.

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.

Porada, E. 1981. ‘The Cylinder Seals Found at Thebes in Boeotia’. Archiv für Orientforschung 28: 1-70.

Rathje, W. L. 1977. ‘New Tricks for Old Seals: A Progress Report’. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Gibson and R. D. Biggs. Malibu: Undena Publications: 25-32.

Renger, J. 1977. ‘Legal Aspects of Sealing in Ancient Mesopotamia’. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Gibson and R. D. Biggs. Malibu: Undena Publications: 75-88.

Sax, M. 1991. ‘Innovative Technqiues Used to Decorate the Perforations of Some Akkadian Rock Crystal Cylinder Seals’. Iraq, 53: 91-95.

Singer, I. 1995. ‘Borrowing Seals at Emar’. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the Symposium held on September 2, 1993, Jerusalem, Israel. Ed. J. Goodnick Westenholz. Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum: 57-64.

Steinkeller, P. 1977. ‘Seal Practice in the Ur III Period’. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Gibson and R. D. Biggs. Malibu: Undena Publications: 41-54.

Teissier, B. 1994. Sealing and Seals on Texts from Kültepe Kārum Level 2. Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul.

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.

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