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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


Small stones (5–10 cm) whose flat or cylindrical surfaces are carved in intaglio with a design or inscription have been used as seals since the Late Neolithic period (7600–6000 BCE) in Syria (Wickede, 1990). The engraved surface was designed to be read in the impression left on receptive materials (clay, wax, soft metal). Through the impression a seal could convey a message of ownership, authorization, or responsibility (Gibson and Biggs, 1977). An inscription most commonly contains the owner's name, patronymic, and office, although prayers and religious dedications are not uncommon. As Dominique Collon demonstrates in First Impressions (1988), the inscription and the design offer information on onomastics, political hierarchy, myth, ritual, and activities of daily life. Not all engraved stones were used as seals: some were amulets and others were used as personal ornaments. Seal impressions themselves also may have had an apotropaic, magical, or purely decorative function. Seal stones often were pierced to be worn as rings, pendents, or bracelets. Fired clay, wood, bone, ivory, and metal are used for seals as well, but these more fragile materials have not survived in the quantities stone seals have. Flat-surfaced stamp seals appear before cylinder seals in the Near East and were the preferred form of seal in Anatolia, Egypt, and the Levant. Stamp seals are divided into typological classes according to the presence or absence of a handle and according to shape. Cylinder seals were the preferred form of seal in Mesopotamia, Iran, and Syria-Palestine, areas that used cuneiform script during the Bronze Age. Cylinder seals are characterized by place of manufacture, historical phase, and design.

The earliest recorded seals and seal impressions, from the Late Aceramic Neolithic period in Syria, are impressions made on the plaster vessels (white ware) that preceded true ceramics (Wickede, 1990). In the Pottery Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic periods, seals continued to be used on vessels in Iraq and coastal Syria and Cilicia. Pyramidal and conoid stamps were common. Their designs, simple cross-hatching, zigzags, and other linear motifs, probably had decorative or apotropaic value. During the Halaf period (5500–5000 BCE), seal impressions occur for the first time on fired ceramic vessels and on soft clay nodules (bullae) used to seal containers. More elaborate in shape and in their engraved design, the Halaf-period seals continue the tradition of primarily geometric, linear, or hatched designs, crosses, and dots but add animal motifs to the repertoire. The Ubaid period (5000–4000 BCE) sees a widening use of seals to control access to objects and rooms, as well as an expansion of motifs to include complex designs and human figures. Tepe Gawra strata XII and XI have some of the best examples of complex seal impressions; they illustrate an early use of sealings to control access to rooms and other containers, probably in an administrative context (Rothman and Blackman, 1990). [See Tepe Gawra.] The use of seals to control access, as well as the particular style associated with them, spread to Anatolia and can be found in examples from Degirmentepe.

Although stamp seals were used throughout the Uruk period (4000–3300 BCE) in southern Mesopotamia, cylinder seals gradually took over their function. The development of the cylinder seal accompanied the increasing sophistication of the recordkeeping and writing system that began with small tokens contained in clay balls. The earliest use of a cylinder seal was to impress the surface of the clay ball, thereby verifying or securing its contents. These have been found at Susa in Iran, but also occur at Uruk in Mesopotamia, in contemporary contexts. [See Susa; Uruk-Warka.] Uruk cylinder seals are large and made of soft limestone and often have a knob at one end. The incised motifs were adapted to the cylindrical surface and designed to repeat indefinitely on rolling. The number and quality of designs expanded considerably to include scenes of hunting, boating, grain storage, and fighting. Mark A. Brandes (1979) suggests that these were used in state/temple administration. A male figure is possibly the “priest-king,” often depicted as taking part in rituals and in scenes with prisoners. Seals from Jemdet Nasr are contemporary with Uruk-style seals but probably were used by individuals rather than administrators. Small, harder, and more common, the Jemdet Nasr seals either show women at work spinning, weaving, and making pottery (Asher-Greve, 1985) or files of animals and geometric patterns. [See Jemdet Nasr.] Cylinder seals of this period are found throughout the Near East, from Susa to Egypt. Collon (1987, pp. 20–24) divides the cylinders seals from the Early Dynastic Period (3200–2600 BCE) into two broad chronological groups: Early Dynastic A and Early Dynastic B. The Early Dynastic A group was produced at the end of the fourth millennium and consists of material from the sites along the trade route between Susa, northern Mesopotamia, and Syria. The tall thin steatite seals have very elaborate, almost brocade, designs that use hatched lines, lozenges, circles, and chevrons. The Early Dynastic B group dates to the middle of the third millennium and is more closely associated with southern Mesopotamian types. Geometric designs based on herringbone patterns and arches in registers are common. More figural designs occur on the cylinder seals created in southern Mesopotamia: animals in human posture, the bull-man, and human-headed bulls may relate to the myths of Mesopotamia. The two major themes, however, are the contest scene between lion and bull or bull-man and the banquet scene at which two seated figures drink through straws from the same vessel or share a meal at the table placed between them.


SEALS. Clay bulla from Habuba Kabira South. This bulla is dated to about 3500–3000 BCE. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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Although cylinder seals and impressions are found as early as Early Bronze I (3500–3100 BCE) in Byblos on the coast of Syria, the majority of seals and impressions in Palestine date to the EB II–EB III period contemporary with the Early Dynastic B group in Mesopotamia. Unlike Mesopotamia—where seals were rolled on tablets and the unfired clay was used to close doors, bags, boxes, and other containers—in Palestine seals were rolled only on fired-clay vessels as decoration. The material of the seals used for making impressions was probably wood or bone. Designs include the herringbone pattern, concentric circles, lozenges, spirals, and ladders, as well as animals, structures, and a few very schematic human figures (Ben-Tor, 1978).

Beginning in about 2350 BCE, Sargon and his successors in the Akkadian Empire sponsored craftsmen who developed a new, more naturalistic style of seal carving and who added new themes and motifs to the repertoire derived from the Early Dynastic period. One new scene was the presentation scene, in which a supplicant is introduced to an enthroned god or goddess by a minor deity. Deities in general are more prevalent on Akkadian seals than on Early Dynastic seals, and for the first time appear in postures or with attributes that allow their identification with members of the Mesopotamian pantheon (Frankfort, 1939). While contemporary with the Akkadian period, the impressions found at Ebla in Syria are related more to developed Early Dynastic styles, even though they also show some knowledge of Akkadian iconography (Collon, 1988, p. 39). Ur III seals continue to use and to standardize the themes from earlier periods: the banquet, contest, and presentation scenes. An innovation in the latter is the use of the deified king receiving a supplicant in place of the seated god or goddess (Winter, 1986). [See Akkadians; Ebla; Ebla Texts.]

Assyrian seals of the Colony period in Anatolia (1950–1750 BCE) are known from the business letters and houses of the merchants stationed at Karum Kaneš in eastern Anatolia. [See Kültepe Texts.] The Assyrian seals contain presentation scenes, deities, lines of animals, or figures that were present in the Ur III period but are more crudely executed in two basic styles: one with flat, linear figures and the other with more stylized, elongated, but deeply cut figures (Collon, 1988, p. 41). The local Anatolian group of seals is very finely cut and takes some inspiration from Assyrian seals. In design, however, the spaces on local seals are filled with a jumble of objects, animals, and human figures, all extremely detailed and finely hatched and rehatched. The iconography of the local seals is a good source of information on local Anatolian deities and ritual.

The Old Babylonian Period (1800–1600 BCE) was, like the Akkadian period, a high point in the development of cylinder seals. Returning to the Early Dynastic and Akkadian prototypes, Old Babylonian seal cutters produced very carefully cut hematite seals using a few standardized versions of old themes. The presentation scene, for example, was reduced to two standing figures, the king and the goddess. Old Babylonian seals appear almost mass produced, except for the inscription of the owner's name. Peripheral sites such as Mari in Syria were heavily influenced by the new style, particularly for royal seals. Syrian seals are, however, much more elaborate and naturalistic, with an iconography that includes elements of Egyptian, Hittite, and Minoan design. In Iran, Elamite seals are often indistinguishable from Old Babylonian examples, except for certain isolated elements of coiffure or gesture (ibid., p. 55). New cutting techniques were introduced shortly after Hammurabi's death In 1750 BCE. The use of the drill and the unmasked use of the cutting wheel resulted in a much more schematic treatment of the human and animal elements in the design.

The Late Bronze Age saw many regional developments in seal materials, use, and design. Mitanni craftsman in northern Mesopotamia developed sintered quartz (known also as faience, paste, or frit) to manufacture seals. Easy to cut or drill and fire, masses of Common Style Mitanni seals were produced all over the Near East, primarily as jewelry and amulets. Designs were often split into a major and minor scene, and abstract geometric forms were used for animals and figures (Porada, 1985, p. 99). Elaborate Style cylinder seals were made of hard stone, were more carefully cut, were inscribed, and are more often found impressed on government and legal documents. [See Mitanni.]


SEALS. Hebrew seal depicting a sailing ship. The inscription reads “Belonging to Amiyahu, son of Marab.” Dated to the eighth-seventh century BCE. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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In the Levant and coastal Syria, only scarab seals rival Mitannian seals in popularity. These stamp seals, shaped like scarab beetles, appear first in Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom and are found in the Levant throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. As Egyptian political power spread to the southern Levant, so did the popularity of scarab seals. Usually found in burials, scarabs are only occasionally used to impress objects, and then only under the influence of the Egyptian administrative system (Buchanan and Moorey, 1988, p. xii). During the Late Bronze Age, the Hittite Empire expanded from the Anatolian plateau to include much of Syria. In their homeland, the Hittites stopped using cylinder seals after the Colony period and returned to the use of button-shaped stamp seals for personal and official use. Many seals are inscribed with its owner's name and title in Hittite hieroglyphic, and others have a simple heraldic design. Only in the Syrian vassal states did the Hittite officials use cylinder seals to impress official documents (Güterbock, 1980).

After the beginning of the first millennium BCE, only the Assyrians continued to use the cylinder seal because only in Mesopotamia did cuneiform continue to be the preferred form for inscribing records. The increase in literacy and the shift to new writing materials, languages, and scripts in Syria and the Levant are reflected in the replacement of the stamp seal with the cylinder seal there. Pyramidal, conical, or scaraboid, the stamp seal had little room for elaborate design, but it was more suited to impressing the small nodules of clay affixed to string around papyrus and leather documents. Iron Age stamp seals usually have a single figure or more often a simple inscription of the owner's name and patronymic, or title. In use, however, stamp seals parallel cylinder seals as means of validating legal documents or preventing access to documents or containers (Hestrin and Dayagi-Mendels, 1979).

[See also Northwest Semitic Seal Inscriptions.]


  • Asher-Greve, Julia M. Frauen in altsumerischer Zeit. Malibu, 1985.
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon. Cylinder Seals of Third- Millennium Palestine. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Supplement, no. 22. Cambridge, 1978.
  • Brandes, Mark A. Siegelabrollungen aus den archaischen Bauschichten in Uruk-Warka. Wiesbaden, 1979.
  • Buchanan, Briggs, and P. R. S. Moorey. Catalogue of Ancient Near Eastern Seals in the Ashmolean Museum, vol. 3, The Iron Age Stamp Seals. Oxford, 1988.
  • Collon, Dominique. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. Chicago, 1988. Good introduction to periods and styles of seals, with a comprehensive bibliography.
  • Frankfort, Henri. Cylinder Seals: A Documentary Essay on the Art and Religion of the Ancient Near East. London, 1939. Basic reference on the style and iconography of Mesopotamian cylinder seals, some-what out of date but still useful.
  • Gibson, McGuire, and Robert D. Biggs, eds. Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Malibu, 1977. Covers the function of cylinder seals in a series of contributions.
  • Güterbock, Hans. “Seals and Sealing in Hittite Lands.” In From Athens to Gordion, edited by Keith DeVries, pp. 51–57. Philadelphia, 1980.
  • Hestrin, Ruth, and Michal Dayagi-Mendels. Inscribed Seals. Jerusalem, 1979. Good introduction to and catalog of the Iron Age seals of ancient Palestine.
  • Matthews, Donald M. Principles of Composition in Near Eastern Glyptic of the Later Second Millennium B.C. Freiburg, 1990. Art historical study of Mitannian seals. Excellent discussion and bibliography.
  • Porada, Edith. “Syrian Seals from the Late Fourth to the Late Second Millennium.” In Ebla to Damascus, edited by Harvey Weiss, pp. 90–104. Washington, D.C., 1985.
  • Rothman, M., and M. James Blackman. “Monitoring Administrative Spheres of Action in Late Prehistoric Northern Mesopotamia with the Aid of Chemical Characterization (INAA) of Sealing Clays.” In Economy and Settlement in the Near East, edited by Naomi F. Miller, pp. 19–46. Philadelphia, 1990.
  • Wickede, Alwo von. Prähistorische Stempelglyptik in Vorderasien. Munich, 1990. The most recent comprehensive treatment of the shape, design, and function of early stamp seals.
  • Winter, Irene J. “The King and the Cup: Iconography of the Royal Presentation Scene on Ur III Seals.” In Insight through Images: Studies in Honor of Edith Porada, edited by Marilyn Kelly- Buccellati, pp. 253–268. Malibu, 1986.

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner

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