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Seals and sealings in the Ancient Near East

Main keywords: economic and social life; seals
Secondary: arts and crafts; jewellery; stone


For more than three millennia cylinder seals, which appear to have originated in Southern Mesopotamia or Western Iran, were in constant use across most of the eastern Mediterranean, in every area that cuneiform culture touched. A portable, engraved cylindrical item, it could be rolled over wet clay to seal and mark it. The technology was easily adaptable and so pervasive that it became an essential aspect of various areas of Mesopotamian life: administrative, legal, personal, social, religious.

L'usage du sceau cylindre est étroitement lié à l'histoire de l'écriture cunéiforme sur tablette d'argile. Fondamentalement, comme son nom l'indique, il s'agit d'un petit cylindre le plus souvent en pierre dure, d’une hauteur moyenne de 35 mm pour 15 mm de diamètre, et gravé en intaille d'une scène –figurative ou non–, augmentée parfois d'une inscription. Cette gravure était réalisée "en négatif" sur le cylindre, afin qu'un "positif" de l'empreinte puisse être déroulé sur l'argile fraîche. La plupart du temps, les sceaux sont perforés longitudinalement ce qui permettait d'y faire passer une cordelette ou une épingle afin qu'il puisse être porté en pendentif.    read more

The use of seals in the Ancient Near East

Go here for a diachronic view of the use of seals in the Ancient Near East.

Important seals and seal impressions.


* Form and Manufacture

* Use of Seals

* Glyptic

* Seal inscriptions

* List of physical seals with original impressions

* Major collections of seals

* L'exemple de la collection des sceaux de la Bibliothèque nationale de France

Seals and CDLI

Online resources for the study of Mesopotamian stamp and cylinder seals are difficult to come by, even though this small administrative tool has played a very substantial role in the development of writing, and in the smooth functioning of advanced ancient societies. Often seals come with incised legends naming the owner, his profession or educational standing, his patronymic and, looking up in the Mesopotamian hierarchy, his administrative affiliations.

The CDLI "Mesopotamian Seals" project is offered in order to bring attention to the limited text annotation files of the CDLI, as one of several avenues of research available for the study of seals, a sub-field more often treated by archaeologists and art historians than by philologists. The CDLI catalogue currently contains entries documenting ca. 32,450 Mesopotamian artifacts related to seals and sealing: 31,300 represent clay tablets, tags or other sealings, most of whose seal impressions included owner legends, and currently just 1,150 are physical seals; 5,370 more CDLI entries represent composites derived from seal impressions, and therefore the negatives of original cylinder seals now lost (see also R. K. Englund's contribution Seals and sealing in CDLI files). For information on the process of digitizing seals, see Klaus Wagensonner's presentation, "digitising in the round".

In 2019 a new website (in English and in French) devoted to seals and directly linked to the CDLI was launched, called SESPOA (Sceaux et Empreintes de sceau du Proche-Orient ancien).

seals_and_sealings_in_the_ancient_near_east.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/03 15:22 by lafont
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