A cylinder seal
is a cylinder engraved with a 'picture story', used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface, generally wet clay
. First appearing in the Near East
during the Uruk period
, later versions would employ notations with Mesopotamian
hieroglyphs. In later periods, they were used to notarize or attest to multiple impressions of clay documents.
The seal itself was made from hard stone, glass, or ceramics such as Egyptian faience. Many varieties of material such as hematite, obsidian, steatite, amethyst and carnelian were used to make cylinder seals, but lapis lazuli was especially popular because of the beauty of the blue stone. Graves and other sites hoarding precious items such as gold, silver, beads, and gemstones often included one or two cylinder seals, as honorific grave goods.
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). 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.
Cylinder seal impressions were made on a variety of surfaces:
- clay tablets
- storage jars
- bales of commodities
- components of fabricated objects
Theme-driven, memorial, and commemorative nature
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
: 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 cuneiformic 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.
A categorization of cylinder seals:
- Akkadian cylinder seals.
- Akkadian seal, ca. 2300 BC, stone seal w/ modern impression. See National Geographis Ref. The glyptic(the Scenes) shows "God in barge", people, and offerings.
- Assyrian cylinder seals.
- Cypriote Cylinder Seals.
- Egyptian cylinder seals.
- Hittite cylinder seals.
- Clay envelope usage, etc; see Kultepe.
- Kassite(the Kassites), cylinder seals.
- Mittanian cylinder seals.
- Old Babylonian cylinder seals.
- Persian cylinder seals; see Darius I, Robinson ref.
- Proto-Elamite cylinder seals.
- Sumerian cylinder seals.
- Neo-Sumerian cylinder seals.
- see Ref (Garbini), "Seated God, and Worshippers", Cylinder seal, and a modern Impressin, p. 40, (British Museum, London).
- Syrian cylinder seals.
- Bahn, Paul. Lost Treasures, Great Discoveries in World Archaeology, Ed. by Paul G. Bahn, (Barnes and Noble Books, New York), c 1999. Examples of, or discussions of Stamp seals, cylinder seals and a metal stamp seal.
- Garbini, Giovanni. Landmarks of the World's Art, The Ancient World, by Giovanni Garbini, (McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, Toronto), General Eds, Bernard S. Myers, New York, Trewin Copplestone, London, c 1966. Discussion, or pictures of about 25 cylinder seals"; also lists the "Scaraboid seal", an impression seal (needs to be a mirror/reverse to be an impression seal).
- Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Tablets, Cones, and Bricks of the Third and Second Millennia B.C., vol. 1 (New York, 1988). The final section (Bricks) of the book concerns cylinder Seals, with a foreword describing the purpose of the section as to instigate Research into cylinder Seals. The 'cylinder sealing' on the bricks, was done multiple times per brick. Some are of high quality, and some are not. (Also contains the only 2 el Amarna letters, in the USA, with Analysis.)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ancient Near Eastern Art, (Reprint), Metr. Mus. of Art Photograph Studio, Designed, Alvin Grossman, Photography, Lynton Gardiner, (Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Spring 1984)), c 1984. 56pgs.
- National Geogr. Soc. Wonders of the Ancient World; National Geographic Atlas of Archeology, Norman Hammond, Consultant, Nat'l Geogr. Soc., (Multiple Staff authors), (Nat'l Geogr., R.H.Donnelley & Sons, Willard, OH), 1994, 1999, Reg. or Deluxe Ed. Origins of Writing, section, pp 68-75. Akkadian Cylinder seal, with its modern seal impression. p. 71.
- Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing, Andrew Robinson, (Thames and Hudson), c 1995, paperback ed., c 1999. (Page 70, Chapter 4: Cuneiform) Ur-Nammu cylinder seal (and impression), with 2095 BCE hieroglyphs, 2X-3X; Darius I, impression only, of chariot hunting scene, 2X, ca 500 BCE.