The cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch (2 to 3 cm) in length, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface, generally wet clay. Cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BC in the Near East, at the contemporary sites of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia and slightly later at Susa in south-western Iran during the Proto-Elamite period, and they follow the development of stamp seals in the Halaf culture or slightly earlier. They are linked to the invention of the latter’s cuneiform writing on clay tablets. They were used as an administrative tool, a form of signature, as well as jewelry and as magical amulets; later versions would employ notations with Mesopotamian cuneiform. In later periods, they were used to notarize or attest to multiple impressions of clay documents. Graves and other sites housing precious items such as gold, silver, beads, and gemstones often included one or two cylinder seals, as honorific grave goods.
The cylinder seals themselves are typically made from hardstones, and some are a form of engraved gem. They may instead use glass or ceramics, like Egyptian faience. Many varieties of material such as hematite, obsidian, steatite, amethyst, lapis lazuli and carnelian were used to make cylinder seals. As the alluvial country of Mesopotamia lacks good stone for carving, the large stones of early cylinders were imported probably from Iran.Most seals have a hole running through the centre of the body, and they are thought to have typically been worn on a necklace so that they were always available when needed.
While most Mesopotamian cylinder seals form an image through the use of depressions in the cylinder surface (see lead photo above), some cylinder seals print images using raised areas on the cylinder (see San Andrés image, below, which is not related to Mesopotamian cylinder seals). The former are used primarily on wet clays; the latter, sometimes referred to as roller stamps, are used to print images on cloth and other similar two dimensional surfaces.
Cylinder seals are a form of impression seal, a category which includes the stamp seal and finger ring seal. They survive in fairly large numbers and are often important as art, especially in the Babylonian and earlier Assyrian periods. Impressions into a soft material can be taken without risk of damage to the seal, and they are often displayed in museums together with a modern impression on a small strip.
Cylinder seal impressions were made on a variety of surfaces:
The images depicted on cylinder seals were mostly theme-driven, often sociological or religious. Instead of addressing the authority of the seal, a better study may be of the thematic nature of the seals, since they presented the ideas of the society in pictographic and text form. In a famous cylinder depicting Darius I of Persia: he is aiming his drawn bow at an upright enraged lion impaled by two arrows, while his chariot horse is trampling a deceased lion. The scene is framed between two slim palm trees, a block of cuneiform text, and above the scene, the Faravahar symbol of Ahura Mazda, the god representation of Zoroastrianism.
The reference below, Garbini, covers many of the following categories of cylinder seal. Dominique Collon's book First Impressions, which is dedicated to the topic, has over 1000 illustrations.
A categorization of cylinder seals:
Ur was an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, located at the site of modern Tell el-Muqayyar in south Iraq's Dhi Qar Governorate. Although Ur was once a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf, the coastline has shifted and the city is now well inland, on the south bank of the Euphrates, 16 kilometres from Nasiriyah in modern-day Iraq.
Sumer is the earliest known civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages, and one of the first civilizations in the world, along with Ancient Egypt, Norte Chico and the Indus Valley. Living along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, Sumerian farmers grew an abundance of grain and other crops, the surplus from which enabled them to form urban settlements. Prehistoric proto-writing dates back before 3000 BC. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr, and date to between roughly c. 3500 and c. 3000 BC.
Nippur was among the most ancient of Sumerian cities. It was the special seat of the worship of the Sumerian god Enlil, the "Lord Wind", ruler of the cosmos, subject to An alone. Nippur was located in modern Nuffar in Afak, Al-Qādisiyyah Governorate, Iraq.
Utu, later worshipped by East Semitic peoples as Shamash, is the ancient Mesopotamian god of the sun, justice, morality, and truth, and the twin of the goddess Inanna, the Queen of Heaven. His main temples were in the cities of Sippar and Larsa. He was believed to ride through the heavens in his sun chariot and see all things that happened in the day. He was the enforcer of divine justice and was thought to aid those in distress. According to Sumerian mythology, he helped protect Dumuzid when the galla demons tried to drag him to the Underworld and he appeared to the hero Ziusudra after the Great Flood. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, he helps Gilgamesh defeat the ogre Humbaba.
A lamassu is an Sumerian protective deity, often depicted as having a human head, the body of a bull or a lion, and bird wings. In some writings, it is portrayed to represent a female deity. A less frequently used name is shedu, which refers to the male counterpart of a lamassu. Lammasu represent the zodiacs, parent-stars or constellations.
Assyriology is the archaeological, historical, and linguistic study of not just Assyria, but the entirety of ancient Mesopotamia and of related cultures that used cuneiform writing. The field covers Sumer, the early Sumero-Akkadian city-states, the Akkadian Empire, Ebla, the Akkadian and Imperial Aramaic speaking states of Assyria, Babylonia and the Sealand Dynasty, the migrant foreign dynasties of southern Mesopotamia, including; the Gutians, Amorites, Kassites, Arameans, Suteans and Chaldeans, and to some degree post-imperial Achaemenid Assyria, Athura, Sassanid Syria, Assyria, and Assuristan, together with later Neo-Assyrian states such as Adiabene, Osroene, Hatra, Beth Nuhadra and Beth Garmai, up until the Arab invasion and Islamic conquest of the mid 7th century AD. Some Assyriologists also write on the further Assyrian continuity of the Assyrian people as well as the Mandaeans into the present day.
The Third Dynasty of Ur, also called the Neo-Sumerian Empire, refers to a 22nd to 21st century BC Sumerian ruling dynasty based in the city of Ur and a short-lived territorial-political state which some historians consider to have been a nascent empire. The Third Dynasty of Ur is commonly abbreviated as Ur III by historians studying the period.
Used by Sumerians and other Mesopotamian cultures beginning in the third millennium BC, clay nails, also referred to as dedication or foundation pegs, cones, or nails, were cone-shaped nails made of clay, inscribed with cuneiform, baked, and stuck into the mud-brick walls to serve as evidence that the temple or building was the divine property of the god to whom it was dedicated. Versions were also made of metal, including castings with figurative designs, such as the Hurrian foundation pegs.
Babylonian religion is the religious practice of Babylonia. Babylonian mythology was greatly influenced by their Sumerian counterparts, and was written on clay tablets inscribed with the cuneiform script derived from Sumerian cuneiform. The myths were usually either written in Sumerian or Akkadian. Some Babylonian texts were translations into Akkadian from the Sumerian language of earlier texts, although the names of some deities were changed.
The Burney Relief is a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief of the Isin-Larsa or Old-Babylonian period, depicting a winged, nude, goddess-like figure with bird's talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon two lions.
The impression seal is a common seal that leaves an impression, typically in clay and less often in sealing wax. In antiquity they were common, largely because they served to authenticate legal documents, such as tax receipts, contracts, wills and decrees. They are favorite topics of study because they were usually carved with important "themes" of the society that produced them, rather than with an ordinary signature.
The stamp seal is a carved object, usually stone, first made in the 4th millennium BC, and probably earlier. They were used to impress their picture or inscription into soft, prepared clay.
In Mesopotamian mythology, the Tablet of Destinies was envisaged as a clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform writing, also impressed with cylinder seals, which, as a permanent legal document, conferred upon the god Enlil his supreme authority as ruler of the universe.
Amar-Sin, initially misread as Bur-Sin was the third ruler of the Ur III Dynasty. He succeeded his father Shulgi. His name translates to 'immortal moon-god'.
Sumerian religion was the religion practiced and adhered to by the people of Sumer, the first literate civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerians regarded their divinities as responsible for all matters pertaining to the natural and social orders.
The art of Mesopotamia has survived in the archaeological record from early hunter-gatherer societies on to the Bronze Age cultures of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. These empires were later replaced in the Iron Age by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia brought significant cultural developments, including the oldest examples of writing.
Karaindaš was one of the more prominent rulers of the Kassite dynasty and reigned towards the end of the 15th century, BC. An inscription on a tablet detailing building work calls him “Mighty King, King of Babylonia, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Kassites, King of Karduniaš,” inscribed ka-ru-du-ni-ia-aš, probably the Kassite language designation for their kingdom and the earliest extant attestation of this name.
The Adam and Eve cylinder seal, also known as the 'Temptation seal' is a small stone cylinder of Post-Akkadian origin, dating from about 2200 to 2100 BCE. The seal depicts two seated figures, a tree, and a serpent, and was formerly believed to evince some connection with Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis. It is now seen as a conventional example of an Akkadian banquet scene.
Two main types of seals were used in the Ancient Near East, the stamp seal and the cylinder seal. Stamp seals first appeared in ‘administrative’ contexts in central and northern Mesopotamia in the seventh millennium and were used exclusively until the fifth millennium. Cylinder seals appeared first around 3600 bc in southern Mesopotamia and south-western Iran. They gradually replaced stamp seals, becoming the tool of a rising class of bureaucrats in the early stages of state formation. Even though stamp seals were still produced in the third and second millennia, cylinder seals predominated. In the first millennium, stamp seals made a strong comeback and eventually replaced cylinder seals entirely.
The art of Uruk encompasses the sculptures, seals, pottery, architecture, and other arts produced in Uruk, an ancient city in southern Mesopotamia that thrived during the Uruk period around 4200-3000 BCE. The city continued to develop into the Early Dynastic Period (Mesopotamia) around 2900-2350 BCE. Considered one of the first cities, the site of Uruk – modern-day Warka in Iraq – shows evidence of social stratification, institutionalized religion, a centralized administration, and what art historians would categorize as high art and architecture, the first in the long history of the art of Mesopotamia. Much of the art of Uruk shows a high technical skill and was often made using precious materials.
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