Cylinder seals from the Old Babylonian period, third millennium BC. Images courtesy of the British Museum, London.
1. A royal figure faces a deity who has one hand raised, with between them a lion-scimitar and a bow-legged dwarf behind them. Old Babylonian period. Hematite, fair condition.
2. A kilted figure with one hand raised and a royal figure the god, clad in a striped skirt and with his arm extended. Old Babylonian period. Hematite, worn.
3. A god in a ladder-patterned robe faces a figure in a cap and striped kilt who raises one hand. Old Babylonian period. Serpentine, very worn.
4. A hero wrestling with a bull-man; a royal figure; and a nude goddess. Old Babylonian period. Goethite, fair condition.
The first known cylinder seals have been found in Susa in south-western Iran and at Uruk, south Mesopotamia, and date to around 3500 BC. These cylinders, carved in semi-precious stones such as hematite or serpentine, limestone, glass or faience, carry a pictorial story in negative relief. In later periods, versions with Mesopotamian hieroglyphs appeared. The seals were rolled onto wet clay, leaving behind an impression of the carvings in high relief. The picture stories often have a religious nature, are commemorative of a certain event or deploy a particular theme.
Cylinder seals were used for a variety of purposes, and were sometimes even worn as amulets and given to the deceased as a funerary gift. The most widespread use is of the seal as a administrative tool. For instance, storage jars of grain or a bale of goods intended for transport would be sealed off with a strip of clay onto which a seal was rolled to prevent theft. Envelopes were closed using a seal, or they would roll a cylinder on an unhardened brick for decoration.
I like cylinder seals. Cylinder seals are cool.