Impressions of Ancient Mesopotamia 9781463210847

Impressions of Ancient Mesopotamia introduces children to ancient Mesopotamian culture through cylinder seals: their pro

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Impressions of Ancient Mesopotamia

Impressions of Ancient Mesopotamia ALAN LENZI



First Gorgias Press Edition, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Gorgias Press LLC. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Gorgias Press LLC, New Jersey. ISBN 1-59333-226-2 Hardback ISBN 1-59333-273-4 Paperback



46 Orris Ave., Piscataway, NJ 08854 USA Printed and bound in the United States of America.

To Alexandria, Noah, and Joshua, whose love for learning and creativity continue to inspire me.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to all of the museums and the many individuals who contributed to this book. Among the latter, I should especially mention Dr. John Malcolm Russell and Dr. Dominique Collon, both professional Ancient Near Eastern art historians, and Alhesha Lane and Wendy Conklin, both primary school educators, for reading the entire manuscript critically. I also wish to thank Dr. Collon for contributing several drawings and pictures that would have been impossible to include without her generosity. Drs. Eva Strommenger, Ellen McAdams, and Michael Roaf showed similar generosity with their photographs, for which I am likewise very grateful. I also wish to thank my wife, Christy, for her help with so many drawings and her constant encouragement throughout the duration of this project. (That sentence doesn't do her justice, but mushy stuff might make some of my young readers sick.) Finally, I should thank my two sixth-grade readers, Jacob and Collin, who gave me feedback about an early draft of this book (and who are now both in high school)—thanks guys.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction 1 PART I: ANCIENT CYLINDER SEALS THEN 1. What Are Cylinder Seals? 9 2. How Were Cylinder Seals Made? 15 3. How Were Cylinder Seals Used and Worn? 27 PART II: ANCIENT CYLINDER SEALS NOW 4. Cylinder Seals Illustrate Stories 33 5. Cylinder Seals Reveal People, Places, and Practices 41 6. Cylinder Seals Convey Ideas 49 7. Cylinder Seals Are Windows onto the Ancient Environment 53 Make Your Own Cylinder Seal 59 For Further Reading and Surfing 62

HOW TO USE (AND NOT TO USE) THIS BOOK You may not use this book for hitting your brother or sister, squishing flies on your desk, or propping open your bedroom window. This book is programmed to self-destruct if such usage occurs. You may, however, use this book to learn about cylinder seals in ancient Mesopotamia. And, if you read carefully, you may use this book to learn many important principles that historians use to reconstruct ancient civilizations.


Nineveh Ugarit


Ashur Tigris River


Mediterranean Sea

Euphrates River

Megiddo Baghdad



BABYLONIA Jerusalem Nile River





EGYPT Persian Gulf

Amarna A basic map of the Ancient Near East. The circled area indicates the vicinity of Mesopotamia.



f you haven’t figured it out yet, this book is about cylinder seals from Ancient Mesopotamia. If you have no idea what cylinder seals are, then you have chosen the right book to learn something new, something your parents probably didn’t learn when they were in school. But before we can talk about cylinder seals, I should briefly introduce you to Ancient Mesopotamia. MESOPOTAMIA AND THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST The ancient Greeks gave Mesopotamia its name. In their language “Mesopotamia,” 0HVRSRWDPLD, simply means “The Land Between the Rivers.” This name described the land quite well since Ancient Mesopotamia existed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the country we now call Iraq. Iraq and many other countries are part of an area of the world called the Middle East. But people who study ancient history do not call the Middle East by this name. (That would be much too simple!) Instead, they call the Middle East the “Ancient Near East.” They call it “Ancient” because the time period they study starts in prehistoric times (before 3300 BCE) and goes to about the time of Alexander the Great (around 333 BCE).* They combine * In this book I use BCE (which means, Before the Common Era) and CE (which means, Common Era) to indicate dates. Simply stated, BCE and CE are a newer way of saying BC and AD. More elaborately stated: We live in the Common Era (CE). This time period includes the year 1 to the present year. In the Common Era, the year numbers get bigger as time goes by. For example, I was born in 1970 CE and got married in 1991 CE. During the years Before the Common Era (BCE), year numbers get smaller as time goes by. You could say BCE years are a count down to the Common Era. For example, Alexander the Great began conquering lands in 333 BCE. He died ten years later in 323 BCE. You could say he died ten years closer to the Common Era.


Turkey Syria Lebanon Israel



Iraq Jordan

Saudi Arabia Kuwait

A map of the modern countries in the Middle East.

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 1 Iraq has experienced many problems recently. Many, many people have suffered because of the horrible effects of war, violence, and greed. The country’s undiscovered archaeological treasures are suffering, too. Ancient artifacts lie buried in the ground awaiting the archaeologist’s spade to dig them up. But archaeologists are not able to work in Iraq very easily because of the problems there. Every bomb that hits the ground could spell disaster for many artifacts still buried at ancient sites. Looters are also stealing away many of these treasures without recording what they are or where they were found. When these precious artifacts from the earliest human civilization are destroyed or stolen, we all as human beings lose a little of our collective past.

this word with the words “Near East” because the area of the world they study includes Asian countries east of Europe, but not too far east. In other words, it includes places we now call Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. It does not include countries farther to the East like India, China, or Japan. Studying the Ancient Near East gives us a glimpse of humanity’s early appearance on the stage of history. Historians have discovered that the Ancient Near East, and especially Mesopotamia, was the site of many “firsts” in human history. For example, the first animals and plants were domesticated in the Ancient Near East. The first cities were built there. And it was home to the first writing system. These are only a sample of the things that make Ancient Near Eastern cultures like ancient Mesopotamia important. THE SUMERIANS AND AKKADIANS In early ancient Mesopotamia, before 2000 BCE, two ethnic groups lived in the land: the Sumerians and the Akkadians. The Sumerians lived in the southern part of Mesopotamia called Sumer. We don’t know exactly when the Sumerians came to the area or where they came from. The evidence is too scarce and difficult to understand. The Akkadians came to Mesopotamia later than the Sumerians. They arrived sometime between the years 3000 and 2500 BCE. They lived in the northern part of Mesopotamia called Akkad. The Sumerians spoke Sumerian. The Akkadians spoke, perhaps to your surprise, Akkadian. The Sumerians and Akkadians lived close to one another and eventually mixed together. This mixture of the two people groups created a distinctive Mesopotamian culture. With time, this culture changed and evolved. But the early mixing of Sumerians and Akkadians made a lasting impression on Mesopotamian life throughout its entire history. Besides the Sumerians and the Akkadians, other groups of people moved into the area, too, such as the Amorites (around 2000 BCE), the Kassites (around 1600 BCE), and the Arameans (probably around 1200 BCE), to name the most important. These groups adapted themselves to the Mesopotamian way of life. They also brought new material items and ideas to Mesopotamian culture that caused it to evolve.


MESOPOTAMIAN LANGUAGE AND WRITING The Sumerian language is not related to any other known language on earth. It was probably spoken in Sumer until sometime before 2000 BCE. We don’t know exactly when people stopped speaking Sumerian. (Archaeologists still haven’t found any CDs during their digs!) We do know that after 2000 BCE, Sumerian became a “learned” language. That means it was used mainly by priests and scholars for their religious and scholarly activities. The same kind of thing happened in the more recent past with Latin in Europe and with Sanskrit in India. Both the Babylonians and Assyrians spoke dialects of Akkadian. Akkadian is what linguists call a Semitic language. It is related to Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and Amharic (the language of modern Ethiopia). Akkadian was the lingua franca of the Near East during the second millennium (2000-1000 BCE). This means that Akkadian was the language everyone used for business and diplomacy. (Today English is the lingua franca in many parts of the world.) The El-Amarna tablets from Egypt provide a remarkable example of people using the Akkadian language for diplomacy. In these letters we find an Egyptian Pharaoh writing to officials in the areas we now call Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey in Akkadian. Both Akkadian and Sumerian were written in cuneiform. This kind of writing used hundreds of “signs” (like Chinese characters) made from tiny wedges. The scribe, or writer, pressed these wedges into a wet clay tablet using a stylus (a short reed or wooden stick). When the tablet dried, the tablet became a very permanent record of whatever the scribe had written (Fig. 1). Why did they write on clay? Easy. Clay was the most abundant resource available to the Mesopotamians. They used it for all kinds of stuff: pottery, bricks, writing material, locks, and many other things, including cheap cylinder seals. Yale Babylonian Collection

Fig. 1. A clay tablet showing cuneiform writing.


Simplified Timeline of Mesopotamian History c. 4000

Cities develop in Mesopotamia

c. 3300

Invention of writing

c. 2900-2334 c. 2700 2334-2154 2334-2279 2154 2112-2004 c. 2100 2004 c. 2000-1800 1765-1595 1792-1750 1595 c. 1595-1155 c. 1350-900 c. 1200 1155 c. 900-612 604-539 604-562 539 539-333 333-323 c. 323-64 64

Early Dynastic Periods I, II, III Sumerian city-states flourish Akkadians in Mesopotamia Historical Gilgamesh (?) Akkadian Empire Sargon of Akkad Guti destroy Akkad Third Dynasty of Ur Amorites in Mesopotamia Elamites sack Ur Isin-Larsa Period Old Babylonian Empire King Hammurabi Hittites destroy Babylon Kassite Period in South Middle Assyrian Period in North Arameans in Mesopotamia Elamites destroy Kassite Babylon Neo-Assyrian Empire Neo-Babylonian Empire King Nebuchadnezzar II Cyrus conquers Babylon Persian Empire Conquests of Alexander Hellenistic (Greek) Period Romans in the Near East

BABYLONIA, ASSYRIA, AND MESOPOTAMIAN HISTORY Scholars divide Mesopotamia into two geographical regions for the period after 2000 BCE: the south and the north. They call the south “Babylonia” after its most important city, Babylon. Around 1350 BCE Ashur became a city of growing importance in the north. So scholars named the northern part of Mesopotamia “Assyria” after that city. Mesopotamian history is complicated and long. But since you just need an introduction, I will simplify it a little here (see the timeline). The northern and the southern regions of Mesopotamia struggled frequently with each other for power. Each wanted to control Mesopotamia so that their cities could enjoy more wealth and prosperity. Sometimes the south was in control. This happened, for example, under Hammurabi’s Old Babylonian empire from about 1765 to 1595. At other times, the north gained control. The best example of this is the Neo-Assyrian empire that flourished from the first half of the 9th century BCE (that is, 900-850 BCE) until around 612 BCE. Besides fighting between the north and south, outsiders frequently invaded Mesopotamia. Sometimes the invasion was cultural. This means that a new people group would enter Mesopotamia and start to mix with the other peoples living there. Instead of fighting battles and burning cities, the outsiders would open businesses and marry into families. The Amorites did this starting around 2100 BCE. Within about three hundred years, an Amorite named Hammurabi sat on the throne of Babylon. This is the same Hammurabi mentioned above; he was the greatest ruler of the Old Babylonian empire. A more brutal kind of invasion came when armies would march into the area and conquer (or try to conquer) the land. This happened frequently throughout Mesopotamian history. The Hittites did this to Babylon around 1595 BCE. They conquered the land, took what they wanted, and then left. The Elamites from an area we now call Iran did this to Babylon, too, several times throughout its history. This kind of thing happened in the north as well. The Medes from Iran, with help from the Babylonians, marched into Assyria in 612 BCE, destroyed Nineveh, its capital city, and brought the NeoAssyrian empire to an end.

All dates are BCE.


Sometimes, the outsiders would come to conquer the land and then stay to rule it. For example, the Kassites took over Babylonia right after the Hittite invasion in 1595 BCE. Ironically, these foreign rulers were themselves overthrown by outsiders. The pesky Elamites invaded and defeated the Babylonian Kassites in 1155. The Elamites took what they wanted and returned home. The greatest example of outsiders ruling Mesopotamia came in 539 BCE. In that year Cyrus came from the Iranian highlands with his armies, conquered the rebuilt Babylonian empire, and established the Persian empire. This empire was the largest the Near East had ever known. The Persians ruled until the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BCE). There are many, many details that I have left out, but I think this gives you a general idea of the history of the area. MESOPOTAMIAN ARTIFACTS AND CYLINDER SEALS The Mesopotamians began writing things down on clay tablets around 3300 BCE. Archaeologists have found hundreds of thousands of tablets in their excavations (or “digs”). Scholars have deciphered the languages of these tablets and have read thousands and thousands of them. The tablets give us a long record of Mesopotamian history and culture. In them we read of events, kings, gods, myths, poems, letters, recipes, dictionary lists, laws, court cases, business documents, religious rituals, and even the homework assignments of school children! This is very fortunate for the ancient historian. We can learn a lot from this gigantic written record. But words cannot always convey the whole idea. A picture is, as they say, worth a thousand words. And we have some of these, too, in a manner of speaking. They aren’t exactly beautiful color prints. Rather, they are artifacts. Artifacts are the things that have survived the ravages of time lying buried in the ground. Archaeologists dig them up in their excavations. They have found all kinds of artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia, including tablets, pottery, metal tools, pottery, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, pottery, buildings, pottery, monuments, pottery, and cylinder seals. Cylinder seals, next to the eighty-seven gazillion pieces of pottery, are among the most common finds on archaeological digs in Mesopotamia.


NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 2 A good source for learning more about Mesopotamian history and culture is Michael Roaf’s book called Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East published by Facts on File (1996). It has great pictures and lots of information. This book may be difficult to read straight through, but it can easily be used like an encyclopedia. You could also look at Samuel Noah Kramer’s classic book History Begins at Sumer: Twenty-seven “Firsts” in Man’s Recorded History published by Doubleday Anchor Books (1959). Recently, Oxford Press has published a children’s book called The Ancient Near Eastern World, by Amanda H. Podany and Marni McGee (2005). This book is basically a children’s version of Dr. Roaf’s book.

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Archaeologists have found over ten thousand of them! Each artifact that an archaeologist finds presents a picture of Mesopotamian culture. It lets us see, feel, and hold something from a very ancient time. Each “picture,” each artifact, becomes historical evidence for reconstructing ancient history and society. Imagine a friend telling you about her visit to Japan. Hearing her tell you about another country is fun and interesting. You try to imagine what it looks and feels like to be there. Then, she pulls out her photographs and shows you pictures of Japan. You ask, “What is that thing over there in this photo?” She points across the living room to a souvenir lying on the table. You go over and pick it up, hold it, feel it. This souvenir is from Japan. It was there. The photographs are from there, too. Both of these things give you an even better idea of what Japan is like. Hearing (or reading) about something is one thing; seeing it, even if in photos and souvenirs, is another. Now back to Mesopotamia and cylinder seals. The interesting thing about cylinder seals is that each cylinder seal gives us two perspectives, kind of like a picture within a picture. No, I don’t mean like your uncle’s eight foot, big-screen TV that can show two channels at once. Rather, each cylinder seal is like having a souvenir and a photograph combined into one. The cylinder seal is an artifact. As an artifact, it gives us one perspective on ancient society. It is material that we can feel and touch. The cylinder seal also has an engraving around it. This is like a photograph, a snapshot of ancient society carved into stone. Both the cylinder seal itself and its engraving give us a view onto ancient Mesopotamian life. Two pictures from one object. This may not make sense just yet, so let me explain a few things about cylinder seals. For instance, what exactly are these things?


PART ONE: ANCIENT CYLINDER SEALS THEN Part One of this book will give you a lot of facts about cylinder seals in the past: what they were, how they were made, and how they were worn and used. These are the basics that all historians need to know in order to use cylinder seals as historical evidence.

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Fig. 2. A cylinder seal and its impression. The inscription reads “Ibni-Amurru, son of Ilima-ahi, servant of Amurru.”



hat are cylinder seals?” you might be wondering. Cylinder seals are small pieces of stone or other hard material in the shape of a cylinder. Picture in your mind the shape and proportions of a soda can, then think of a soda can only 1 inch tall. This gives you a rough idea of a cylinder seal’s dimensions. Around a cylinder seal there is some carving. We will call this the cylinder seal’s engraving. The engraving is a design carved in intaglio. This is an Italian word that means the design is cut into the surface of the cylinder. When you roll the cylinder across a soft material like clay, the seal makes an impression. This is similar to what your bicycle tire does when you ride in the dirt. But instead of tread marks, a cylinder seal leaves an interesting design or picture in the clay, and sometimes even a written message. Remember, the engraving is carved in intaglio. This means that the cylinder seal will flatten out the clay like a rolling pin everywhere except where the engraving touches the clay. In those places, the clay squeezes up into the engraving and leaves a design in relief. In other words, the design stands out from the clay (see Fig. 2). These little objects were used in the Ancient Near East from about 3500 BCE until roughly 400 BCE. Over 3000 years! That’s longer than half of all recorded human history. (All of recorded human history is only about 5300 years as of the year 2005.) Think about it. All 3000 years came and went before the time of Alexander the Great, or the invention of the book, or the establishment of the Roman Empire, or the founding of Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, and Islam. If cylinder seals are so old, where were they hiding for so long? You already know the answer from the Introduction, but I will say it again: in the


You can see many cylinder seals and their impressions on the internet. Check out the back of the book for suggested websites.

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Fig. 3. An ancient cylinder seal impression on the edge of a clay tablet.

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 3 Unfortunately, archaeologists have to compete with archaeological looters and antiquities dealers for artifacts. Looters illegally dig up ancient artifacts. Antiquities dealers sell archaeological artifacts (sometimes illegally). When a looter or dealer sells cylinder seals to tourists and private collectors (as is often done today), much important information about the cylinder seal is lost. Without precise records of where these cylinder seals were found, their use for historical research is greatly reduced. And who knows, the eager buyer may be purchasing a forgery!

dirt. These cylinder seals lay buried for over 2000 years and some for over 5000! Archaeologists have excavated thousands of cylinder seals and their ancient impressions on clay in the last 150 years throughout the Middle East (Fig. 3). These cylinder seals and impressions are historical evidence. As scholars combined cylinder seals with other ancient artifacts, they discovered several lost civilizations like the Sumerians, Hittites, Babylonians, and Assyrians. The work of reconstructing these civilizations is still going on today. I have already mentioned that cylinder seals are small. But exactly how small? The size of cylinder seals usually ranges between about 2.5 to 6 cm (1" to 2.4")* tall and from less than 1 to over 2 cm (.4" to .8") wide. I say usually because, as you will see in this book, the exact sizes and proportions of cylinder seals vary. Most of the time, cylinder seals are about one and a half times taller than their width. But these dimensions all seem too abstract to really understand what we are dealing with. So take out a piece of notebook paper, fold it in half (top to bottom) three times, then fold this narrow strip from right to left two times. This gives you an idea of the size of the impression a cylinder seal 3.5 cm (1.4") tall by 1.6 cm (.6") wide would make. This is close to the size of the impression in Figure 4 made by a seal 3.7 x 1.4 cm (1.45" x .55"). Like the size of cylinder seals, the materials used to make them were also diverse. Fig. 4. A Craftsmen who made cylinder museum’s seals, called seal cutters, or modern bu r - g u l in Sumerian and impression of an ancient purkullu in Akkadian, liked to cylinder seal. use stones such as jasper, lapis lazuli, chalcedony, steatite, hematite, or rock crystal to make seals. Many of these © Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum *

The abbreviation cm stands for centimeters. The symbol " means the measurement is in inches.


Fig. 5. Ancient craftsmen used different kinds of material to make cylinder seals: stone, shell, ivory, even clay. The use of different materials also created a great variety of colors among seals.

Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

stones are colorful and quite beautiful (Fig. 5). The seal cutters also used glazed clay, ivory, shell cores and even precious metals like gold. But why did the Mesopotamians like the shape of a cylinder? It is true that stamp seals (like a modern rubber stamp) were used in Mesopotamia before cylinder seals replaced them. And it is also true that the stamp seal came back into use in Mesopotamia during Persian times (539-333 BCE). So why did the Mesopotamians use cylinder shaped seals for so long in between? The answer lies in the purposes for which they were used.


AN APPRENTICESHIP CONTRACT FROM PERSIAN TIMES Itti-Marduk-balatu, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddin of the family Egibi gave his slave Guzu-ina-Bel-atsbat to Hashday, the purkullu, a slave of Cambyses, the crown prince, for four years, to (learn) the craft of the purkullu. . . . (the tablet is broken here) . . . He will teach him the entire craft of the purkullu. IttiMarduk-balatu will clothe Guza-Bel-atsbat with one mutsiptu-garment. If Hashday does not teach him, he pays 20 minas of silver. After he has taught him for four years [his wages will be . . . ] (the tablet is broken to the end). Translated by A. Leo Oppenheim

Why are cylinder seals called seals? You may be thinking, “Because they sealed stuff.” That’s right! The first use for cylinder seals was actually to seal doors, jars, or baskets. The Mesopotamians would stick a lump of clay on a door lock, on a jar lid, or over a basket latch. Then they would roll their cylinder seal over the wet clay. When the clay dried, it would form a hardened clay sealing. If the sealing was broken, then that meant someone had gotten into the room or basket. This helped the owner to protect his or her possessions. So in a way, cylinder seals marked ownership and were a safety device, like locks today. The idea here is essentially the same as a piece of foil or paper over the top of a new peanut butter jar. You know if that “seal” is broken, something is wrong. The cylinder seal proved more efficient than stamp seals for impressing large areas quickly. Its owner could roll a cylinder seal over a spot needing to be sealed faster than he could stamp a stamp seal all over the clay. This is the reason why the seals have a cylinder shape. And it is also the reason why cylinder seals replaced stamp seals for so long. But cylinder seals had other uses. They functioned as a kind of signature on a legal document (Fig. 3). If a person sealed a clay tablet by rolling his or her cylinder seal across it, that person agreed to whatever that tablet recorded. The Mesopotamians also used cylinder seals in religious rituals and believed cylinder seals possessed magical protective power against evil, like garlic against vampires. Finally, cylinder seals were worn as jewelry. We will go into more detail on the use of cylinder seals in chapter 3. For now, you can think of cylinder seals as a combination of a name tag, padlock, signature, photo ID, rabbit’s foot, and gold necklace all rolled into one. This gives you an impression of what cylinder seals are. In the following two chapters we will learn how they were made and used. Can you imagine carving your name and a detailed picture like the ones in Figures 2 and 4 on a circular piece of hard stone? Can you imagine doing this on a piece of stone maybe the size of your thumb (probably smaller)? How about without using any electric tools? If you can’t imagine how anyone could do this, then you’re beginning to see why these little cylinder seals are so amazing.


SO YOU WANT TO BE A PURKULLU / B U R - G U L? Unlike many societies today, ancient cultures often had definite ideas about who could do what. So the first thing we must understand about wanting to be a seal cutter is who was allowed to be one. Historians assume that many seal cutters trained their sons to take over the family business when the father grew old or died. So a seal cutter’s son could definitely become a seal cutter. But did seal cutters only teach their sons the trade? In other words, were seal cutters always men? This may be true since seal cutters are always men in the few clay tablets we have that mention seal cutters. But the idea that every single seal cutter was a man is still unproved. It is possible, then, that some seal cutters were in fact women. Unfortunately, this is also unproved. We just don’t have any tablets that mention a woman seal cutter. (Since we know for sure that some seal cutters were men, I will refer to a seal cutter as a “he” in this book.) Whether a man or a woman, if you wanted to be a seal cutter, you had to learn the trade. But what if dad wasn’t a seal cutter? What if he was a blacksmith or a farmer or something else? Don’t despair! A seal cutter sometimes would take on an apprentice. This is what they call a young person who learns a craft from an experienced craftsman. So if your dad wasn’t a seal cutter, you could become a seal cutter’s apprentice! In the ancient record translated on the facing page (to the left), we see that even slaves became apprentices. Note, too, that the craftsman himself is a slave. This shows that you didn’t even have to be a free person to be a seal cutter. How long did it take to become a seal cutter, you ask? The record to the left says four years, but this is only one example. Other craftsmen may have taken more or less time to train their apprentices. Besides this one record, we simply do not know much about how long it took to become a seal cutter. What was it like to be a seal cutter? This we cannot answer without some imagination. And instead of me telling you how I imagine it, I want to tell you more about cylinder seals so you can imagine it for yourself. By the time you finish reading Part One of this book you will have plenty of material to feed your imagination. But if you want to read another person’s ideas about the life of a seal cutter, check out Christy Lenzi’s story “False Impressions” in Cricket Magazine (October 2004 through January 2005 issues). In this story a young slave boy named Nabi-Sin is apprenticed to king Hammurabi’s seal cutter.


De Clerq Collection, #46

Fig. 6. A modern impression of an Old Akkadian seal. It dates back to about 2200 BCE. The inscription is the centerpiece of this seal. It reads “Shar-kali-sharri, king of Akkad. Ibni-sharrum, the scribe, is your servant.”



here are five basic steps to making a cylinder seal. First, the seal-cutter chooses his material. Second, he gets a “blank” cylinder of that material. Third, he chooses the design to be carved into the cylinder. Fourth, he carves the design onto the cylinder. And fifth, he polishes the seal. It sounds simple, but it is actually pretty complicated. Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps to see just how complicated it really is. The seal cutter started the process of making a cylinder seal by choosing a material to use. Sometimes he used a material because it was most readily available to him. Sometimes he used a material because a customer requested it. Sometimes he may have chosen the material because of its magical powers. Still other times the seal cutter just used what he had the tools for, knew how to carve on, or specialized in. You should also keep in mind that the different materials used for cylinder seals would have differing value. A rich customer, for example, could afford an expensive stone. A poor one might choose to have a seal made from baked clay. After choosing a material, the seal cutter then needed to make a “blank,” a cylinder without any engraving on it. It is not clear how the seal cutter did this. Perhaps he chiseled and ground a piece of stone into a cylinder shape. Or, perhaps he drilled a “blank” out of a bigger piece of material with a large, hollow drill bit (see below). Or, maybe he didn’t make the “blank” at all. Perhaps he got his “blanks” from a stone cutter, a craftsman who specialized in chiseling stone. It just isn’t clear how this worked. One thing we do know about “blanks” is that they were sometimes made ahead of time and stored in a seal cutter’s workshop. We know this


FIVE STEPS TO A CYLINDER SEAL 1. Choose the Material. 2. Get a “Blank.” 3. Choose the Design. 4. Carve the Design onto the Blank. 5. Polish the Cylinder Seal.

Drawing by Christy Lenzi

Fig. 7. An artist’s idea of what an ancient cutting wheel may have looked like.

Drawing by Dominique Collon

Fig. 8. An ancient Egyptian bow drill, probably very similar to the ones used in Mesopotamia.

because archaeologists have found several “blanks” on the floor of seal cutters’ shops at sites such as Ur (see Map). The next two steps for the seal cutter were to choose a design for the cylinder seal’s engraving and to carve it into the cylinder. There is much to be said about both of these. We will start with the carving process. As you know by now, cylinder seals are made from hard substances. This required the seal cutter to use special tools and techniques to create the engraving (Figs. 7 and 8). The seal cutter used drill bits, cutting wheels, chisels, and other pointed instruments to cut the engraving. The earliest tools were made of flint before 3000 BCE. After 3000 BCE, copper and bronze (copper mixed with tin) were the materials of choice for many tools. Then around 1000 BCE iron tools came into use. Carving a cylinder seal required many special techniques and skills from the craftsman. Filing and chipping were the oldest and most basic lapidary techniques (that is, ways of carving on stone), dating back thousands and thousands of years. When applied to seal cutting, these techniques required the seal cutter to use a sharp-edge, chisel, or other pointed instrument made of flint, copper, bronze, or iron. They also required keen eye-hand coordination from the craftsman. One slip could mess up the engraving, the seal cutter’s day, and, with these sharp tools, a finger or two. Filing and chipping were used on cylinder seals as long as cylinder seals were produced. Craftsmen used two other main techniques for carving seals: drilling and cutting. Hand drilling was already used in very early times, at least as early as 5000 BCE. Then there was a major technological breakthrough sometime after 2000 BCE: the invention of the bow drill (Fig. 8). This tool allowed the seal cutter to drill and cut seals more efficiently. To use the drill, the seal cutter would first mount the drill bit or cutting disk onto a shaft (that is, a strong stick). Then, he would loop the string of the bow (like an archer’s bow) around the shaft. When he pulled the bow back and forth, the shaft would spin. Each stroke of the bow would make the drill or cutting disk spin several rotations. The craftsman had to apply just the right amount of pressure to get the proper results. If he cut or drilled too deeply, he would have to start all over. To get the best artistic results, the shaft was fixed horizontally and the bow


was pulled up and down (vertically). Take a look at the cutting wheel in Figure 7. The horizontal mount for the drill and cutting wheel was an important improvement on the vertical bow drill pictured in Figure 8.

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 4 When there is an improvement or change in an already invented tool or idea, historians call this improvement or change an innovation.

Fig. 9. This picture shows a modern reproduction of ancient drilling techniques using emery powder. The grooves along the inside of the hole match grooves found in ancient drillings. This proves that the ancients used emery while drilling. The picture was taken with an electron microscope.

Fig. 10. Notice the many straight lines in this seal impression. They show that the seal cutter used a hand file extensively to make the seal’s engraving. Courtesy of the Museum of Art and Archaeology University of Missouri–Columbia

Courtesy the American Schools of Oriental Research

While drilling or cutting, the craftsmen would dab some oil with emery powder mixed into it over the area he was working on (Fig. 9). Because emery is very hard it helped the drill bits and cutting disks grind through the stone faster. The emery would also work its way into the metal of the tools. This made tools harder with every use, so they lasted longer. The result of all of this is a bow-powered drill or cutting tool that allowed the seal cutter to cut the design into stone more quickly, even into really hard stone like rock crystal. Bow-powered tools aren’t exactly electric power-tools, but they were definitely better than doing everything by hand! Look at Figure 10. Can you see how the impression is mostly made-up of lines set at different angles? This design was probably created by filing. Now look at Figure 11. Can you see all the marks that look like bubbles on the impression? These show that the seal cutter used a drill on this seal. Now look at Figure 12. Here we have an unfinished seal. The basic outlines of the figures on this seal were first “roughed out” with a drill and then finished


Fig. 11. The bubbles in this impresson are evidence that the seal cutter used a drill to cut this engraving. The inscription reads “Seal of Minu-epush-ana-ili, officer of grain storage.” Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

Fig. 12. The modern impression of an unfinished seal.

Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 5 One unusual skill required from the ancient seal cutters was the ability to see what they were doing while cutting the tiny designs on the seal. Transparent glass was not invented until Roman times, so the seal cutters could not have used magnifying glasses. Instead, some scholars think that seal cutters were myopic, or near-sighted. Seal cutting as a trade usually would have been passed down through the family from father to son for generations. And nearsightedness is an easily inherited condition. If we combine these two, we can develop a historical hypothesis about the seal cutting craft: seal cutting families were especially gifted for their craft with near-sightedness. (But remember, this is only a hypothesis, a possible explanation.) Seal cutters may not have been able to see an approaching army coming to burn their town down, but they could have seen the tuft of hair on a lion’s tail in the tiniest of seal designs!

with hand tools. The two figures on the end are only roughed out; the three figures in the middle are finished. All four techniques, filing, chipping, drilling, and cutting, could be used by a craftsman on a single cylinder seal to render (that is, to produce) the design he intended. They all required from the craftsman careful eye-hand coordination, patience, and artistic flair. Another use of the drill was to perforate, or cut a hole through, the middle of the seal lengthwise. This would allow the owner to put a string through the cylinder seal and wear it on a necklace or bracelet. (Boring holes like this into stone was actually the earliest use of the drill.) To do this, the seal cutter did not go straight through the seal from one end to the other. Rather, he went half way, turned the seal over, and then drilled from the other end the rest of the way through. The seal cutter generally made this hole before he began carving the engraving. Like all drilling and cutting, this took hours and hours, even with the bow-powered tools. This must have been extremely boring! Can you imagine how frustrating it would have been after so many hours of drilling to find out your two holes didn’t join in the middle but had missed each other? Or to work for hours drilling the hole only to have your drill bit break off or get stuck in the cylinder? In modern Afghanistan archaeologists have actually found an unfinished cylinder seal with a broken drill bit stuck in it. Out of frustration, some ancient Mesopotamian threw it all the way over to Afghanistan when his bit broke! Of course, I’m stretching the truth, but I think you can imagine the emotion that such failure would evoke after so many hours of work. Fig. 13. This modern seal impression shows the work of a master seal cutter. The inscription reads “Let him who trusts you not be put to shame, O Nabu. Let him follow you. Make him enjoy wealth. Increase his life.” © Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

The skill and creative talent of craftsmen varied. Some of the best designs (for example, Fig. 13) were carved by great masters of the craft.


FORGERIES! BUYERS BEWARE! Museums and collectors pay top dollar for quality ancient cylinder seals, so it is no wonder that forged cylinder seals exist on the antiquities market today. Modern craftsmen attempt to copy an ancient seal’s design or combine two or more designs into something original. They carve it into a cylinder. And then they try to pass their little fake off to a museum or collector as an ancient seal.

Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

Fig. 14. A modern impression of a forged seal.

Many museums have fallen prey to these crafty craftsmen. Look at Figure 14. The sunflower in this impression does not belong in the design. Scholars know this because the seal is an exact copy, minus the sunflower, of a cylinder seal housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Furthermore, scholars know that sunflowers do not occur in Mesopotamian art. Since this cylinder seal design includes one, scholars are sure the seal is a forgery.


NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 6 Some scholars believe there were special workshops of seal cutters in several locations of the Ancient Near East. By combining different kinds of evidence, they make this claim at least plausible (that is, something that is reasonable to believe). The evidence they find and use is quite varied: the differing abilities and styles of craftsmen, an area’s favorite designs and choices of material, the location and dating of discovered seals, and written texts mentioning seal cutters.

These engravings show incredible details like the pattern on clothing, a figure’s muscles, and the texture of an animal’s fur. All of this is captured in a design cut on a cylinder only 3.65 cm high x 1.7 cm in diameter (1.4" x .55")! Now that we have seen how the seal cutter carved the design onto the cylinder, let’s go back a step and see how he chose his design and what some of them mean. Seal cutters chose their design for the seal’s engraving the same way they chose their material for the cylinder. Sometimes a customer requested a design for a certain reason. Sometimes the seal cutter specialized in a particular design or only knew how to engrave a few different designs. Still other times, the seal cutter just cut what was “available,” that is, what was in style.

Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

Fig. 15. The early seal that made this modern impression was very fat compared to its height (3.5 x 3 cm [1.4" x 1.2"]). This size is unusual among later seals.

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 7 Even though I have separated out three categories of scenes, you will see that they all overlap in some ways. For example, contest scenes have mythological creatures in them sometimes (Fig. 18); ritual scenes may also use a contest scene (Fig. 23); and there are some seals that just don’t fit these categories at all (Fig. 27). The categories I have used here make modern explanations easier for the historian to write and easier for the reader to understand. They are our invention; the ancients probably did not make these nice neat distinctions.

Among the earliest designs on cylinder seals were patterns of animals and geometric shapes (Figs. 15 and 16). These were used by officials of the temple and trade merchants. Eventually, seal cutters used other kinds of scenes in their designs, too. These designs usually fall into three main categories: contest scenes, ritual scenes, and mythological Courtesy of the Museum of Art and Archaeology scenes.

University of Missouri–Columbia

Fig. 16. The seal that made this impression is unusually tall and thin. This also is unusual in later seals.


Contest scenes usually show a predator attacking another animal, a warrior fighting a predator or monster, or sometimes both (Figs. 17, 18, 19, and 20). This kind of scene is one of the most important and long-lasting trends in cylinder seal design.

The Gorelick Collection, #41

Fig. 18. Gilgamesh (left) and Enkidu (right) slaying Humbaba. Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

Fig. 17. This design and the ones in Figs. 18, 19, and 20 are called contest scenes.

University of Pennsylvania Museum Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

Fig. 20. A contest scene between animals with a warrior joining the fight. The inscription reads “Shara-bar-a, scribe of the Lady.”

Fig. 19. A winged-man killing a lion.


University of Pennsylvania Museum

Ritual scenes are scenes that show people relating to their gods and goddesses in some way through a ceremony or other activity. You could say these scenes are religious in nature. For example, banquet scenes (Fig. 21) show priests and priestesses, who were representatives of the temple’s god and goddess, feasting in the temple. This kind of scene shows the abundance supplied by the divinities. Presentation scenes (Fig. 22) show a deity leading a worshipper into the presence of another deity. This scene was probably intended to show the owner of the seal in perpetual worship before the deity pictured on it — a very good thing to the Mesopotamians. Less common scenes depict many of the other Mesopotamian ritual activities like sacrifice, prayer, and magical rites (Fig. 23).

Fig. 21. This seal shows an early banquet scene. The inscription reads “He-kun-sig, priestess of Pabilsag.”

Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

Fig. 22. In this presentation scene, a goddess escorts a person into the presence of a seated god. Notice the horned crowns on the deity (see chapter 6). The inscription reads “Ibbi-Sin, the mighty king, king of Ur, king of the four quarters. Erra-dan, scribe, son of Arshiah, is your servant.”

The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Fig. 23. Apkallus, or fish-men, performing a ritual by a “sacred tree.”


Mythological scenes deal with the fantastic world of gods, goddesses, monsters, and demons. These scenes display the Mesopotamians’ ideas about the powers that controlled their world. For example, we can look on as mythological heroes kill dreaded evil creatures (Fig. 18). Or, we can see how the Mesopotamians depicted their gods and goddesses (Fig. 24). In this case, the cosmic © Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum divinities are made to look human but also bear Fig. 24. The gods in this picture, moving from right to left, are: Usmu, the vizier of Ea; Ea, the symbols marking their powers and role in the god of water and wisdom (see the water and fish swimming toward him?); Shamash, the sun universe. These kinds of scenes give us glimpses god (rising between the mountains); Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and war (note the arrows on into the mythical forces that shaped the lives of her shoulders); and finally a divine archer. The inscription reads “Adda, scribe.” the ancients. The design was not the only thing carved onto a cylinder seal. On some seals, there was an inscription, that is, a written message. This NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 8 was usually a succinct statement of the owner’s name, filiation (“son or Scholars have found many variations in the scenes I daughter of ” somebody), and perhaps his or her occupation or the person or have described in this section. With the passing of deity to whom they were in service (“servant of ” so-and-so). A specially time, the usual way of rendering a design slowly trained scribe may have helped the seal cutter carve the cuneiform signs for changed, or the design stopped being used the message onto the seal. Until later times, these were usually carved in altogether. New designs and ways of doing things mirror-image. When the seal was rolled out, the message in the impression were introduced and, like the older ones, evolved. would look like normal writing (Fig. 6 at the beginning of this chapter). Think of this as the coming and going of different Archaeologists have found finished cylinder seals that have a blank spot fashion trends. But instead of the trend lasting a few months or a year, it could last for decades or even for the inscription. This shows that some seal cutters had finished seals “on more than a hundred years. Detailed study of the the shelf ” for customers to buy. When someone bought it, the seal cutter evolution of cylinder seal designs is called Glyptic could have their inscription carved onto the cylinder seal. There is even Studies (that is, studies relating to the engraving of evidence that an old inscription could be ground off a cylinder seal and a new stones or gems). Experts in Mesopotamian Glyptic inscription carved over the “erased” one. This shows that cylinder seals were Studies help the historian better understand the date “recycled.” of a seal and other historical evidence “frozen” in a cylinder seal’s design.


In later times, around 1500 BCE, longer inscriptions are found on cylinder seals. Often these inscriptions are prayers (Fig. 25 and flip back to Fig. 13). In order for you to see the different kinds of inscriptions engraved on seals, I have provided a translation of almost all of them pictured in this book. The final step in making a cylinder seal may be inferred from the shiny appearance of many seals. Craftsmen probably polished their completed seals with a piece of felt containing a fine, abrasive powder. This would have given the seals their smooth, gleaming finish. Making a cylinder seal was a slow and difficult process. The seal cutters were very skilled and creative individuals, no doubt highly respected in their city or village. If you were an ancient Mesopotamian, would you want to buy a cylinder seal? What would you use it for? Turn to the next chapter and you’ll see!

Fig. 25. The inscription reads “O Nanna, resplendent lord, life of the land, Zakirum is your servant. Receive this . . . consider this prayer! For him who presents this supplication, in heaven and earth (?), prolong and multiply good fortune.”

Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg



The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Fig. 26.

Craftsmen saw the artistic possibilities presented by the cylinder shape very early on. For example, in Figure 26 the artist carved a continuous scene around the cylinder. When it was rolled out, the engraving created an endless or uninterrupted design. In Figure 27, the seal’s engraving appears to have two trees in it. In fact, it only has one. The rolling of the seal has created this illusion.

The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Fig. 27.


Impression of a string Impression of a knot

Courtesy of Eva Strommenger

Fig. 28. These are pictures of a broken “clay lock” with an ancient seal impression on it (see top picture for the impression). The lock was originally pressed onto strings (see the picture on bottom) used to tie shut a basket of dry goods.



ealing the lids of jars and sealing the locks on doors and baskets were some of the earliest uses of cylinder seals. For doors, a string was wound around a peg on each side of the door to be closed, then a lump of clay was plopped over the peg and rolled over with a seal. Baskets or boxes were sealed in a similar way. But in this case, the clay was applied directly to the string (Fig. 28). Jars would be stopped up with clay then impressed with a seal on top. If the jar had a big mouth, it was first closed up with a cloth tied on by a string. Then the cloth was covered with clay and rolled over with a seal (see Fig. 29). The sealing marked ownership, sometimes labeled the contents of the jar or room (Fig. 30), and was also a kind of lock. You could tell very easily if someone had tampered with your goods: the seal would be broken. This way of marking stored or transported items was especially important in the development of economic organization. In other words, this sealing method helped the rise of trade and the establishment of places for business. © Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum Without the clay “locks” impressed with seals, Fig. 30. This clay label from a basket indicates business transactions would “basket of aromatic plants.” always be a little suspicious. 27




Fig. 29. To seal the contents of a jar, the Mesopotamians would a) fill the jar with its contents, b) cover the mouth of the jar with cloth and tie it on with some string, and then c) lump clay over the cloth and roll a cylinder seal over the clay. Once the clay dried, the jar’s contents would be kept safe. We know about step b) because archaeologists have actually found some jar sealings with a cloth texture impressed on back. Drawing by Christy Lenzi

Can you imagine the delivery man with a truck load of unlabelled, opened boxes trying to find and deliver the package your grandma sent to you? If she found out about such a clumsy and foolish delivery system, she probably wouldn’t ship you argyle socks again, no matter how cute you look in them! By about 2300 or 2200 BCE, over a thousand years after the invention of writing, seals were regularly used as a “signature” on contracts, orders, loans, receipts, and other legal documents (see Fig. 31). As mentioned earlier, if you sealed the tablet with your seal, then you agreed to its terms. Since most people could not read or write, a distinctive mark, their cylinder Yale Babylonian Collection seal, allowed them to “sign” their “name.” Fig. 31. This tablet records a debt settlement. The impressions prove that the tablet was (People that did not have a cylinder seal could authenticated, or approved, by certain people involved in the settlement. simply impress their thumb nail into the clay for their “signature.”) We know this was a very common use for seals. Archaeologists have found many, many clay tablets with seal impressions on them. Since seals marked ownership, sometimes people rolled them across NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 9 pottery before it dried. Not only would this decorate the pottery vessel, it It is very odd that there are only a couple of would also let everyone know that the pot, cup, or bowl belonged to the instances where we have both the ancient clay seal’s owner (Fig. 32). impression of a seal and the actual seal used to make Cylinder seals were used in various “magical” ways, too. Since a seal was it. This may be due to the fact that seals were often a kind of symbol for its owner, and it was often used to mark what belonged “recycled,” that is, reinscribed. But it is also a to him or her, a cylinder seal was eventually considered an amulet for its reminder to the ancient historian that our evidence wearer. That means that cylinder seals were believed to have a protective of the past is fragmentary. It is limited to what is power that could ward off certain kinds of evil. For example, certain seals both preserved through time and discovered by were worn by pregnant women to prevent miscarriage. archaeologists.


Another “magical” use for cylinder seals was in rituals dealing with witchcraft and slander. The Mesopotamians believed witches could make false accusations about a person to others, ruin their business and family, and inflict illness. At worst, the witch could make a person’s god punish him or her. Slander is similar. It is a false accusation or hurtful speech that intends to hurt the reputation of a person. In many of these rituals, as in voodoo, models of the slanderer or witch, or a model of their tongue, were fashioned. Then a priest would roll a cylinder seal over the model while he recited incantations. This insured that the slanderous mouth would be silenced. You could say their “lips were sealed.” In one case from ancient Iran, archaeologists found a large cylinder seal in the mouth of a skeleton lying in a grave. This may be evidence for a mortuary ritual in which the cylinder seal is placed in a dead person’s mouth to seal it shut before burial. This may have been done in preparation for the afterlife. Or, perhaps it was intended to protect the living people still in the presence of the dead. No one is really sure. Cylinder seals were also used as ornaments or jewelry. Wealthy people, Drawing by Christy Lenzi for example, could afford to have elaborate seals with beautiful gold caps on Fig. 32. This picture, based on real each end hung on an expensive necklace. Such an elaborate piece of jewelry artifacts, shows an artist’s idea of a would bring to its wearer the attention of others and maybe even social decorative seal impression on a distinction — they’d be popular! Even though we know this is superficial, piece of pottery. people then, just like now, got caught up into the “rich and famous” scene. People of more modest means tried to copy the expensive fashions with cheap imitations (Fig. 33). Fig. 33. Expensive cylinder seals often would include “Who used seals?,” you might be wondering. metal (sometimes gold) caps on them (drawing on the Evidence shows that in some time periods, just left). When these capped seals were rolled onto clay, about everybody: kings, princesses, governors, the caps would leave lines in the impression above and officials, regular men and women, even slaves! below the seal’s main scene. Sometimes a cylinder seal That’s why we have so many of them. Even the without caps was carved so that it would make these lines in its impression (drawing on the right). This was gods living in temples had cylinder seals! a cheap way to imitate the impression of an expensive Since cylinder seals were very important, capped cylinder seal. people needed to keep them safely nearby. For this reason, and perhaps also because seals were Drawing by Christy Lenzi 29

IN CASE OF A LOST OR STOLEN CYLINDER SEAL . . . So you’ve lost your cylinder seal. Or maybe someone stole it. Don’t panic! At least, not yet. But what do you do? Is there a phone number to call and report it? No, instead you do the next best thing: you go to a scribe and get a tablet drawn up that states when the seal was lost. If anyone uses it after that time, everything they used it on is invalid. This means you won’t have to pay for the 300 sheep the guy who found your seal bought with it. If it was a really important seal, the city officials might sound the alarm in the city streets. That is, they would blow a horn, a real animal horn, and announce the loss of the cylinder seal. In this way, the news would get out quickly. Besides the financial problems involved, a Mesopotamian also needed to worry about what a lost or stolen cylinder seal “meant.” What did it symbolize or forecast for the future? Since seals were so closely associated with a person’s identity, a lost or stolen one was a bad omen or sign. For example, if a person even dreamt that someone took his seal away, it meant that his daughter or son would die! If the seal that was taken in his dream had his name on it, then only his son would die. To undo a bad sign the Mesopotamians had rituals called namburbis. A person could perform a namburbi to restore harmony in his or her life.

attractive to look at, people wore them on their person. Most seals have a hole drilled through them lengthwise so they could be worn on a necklace. On some seals there was a loop made of metal or carved out of the stone. This allowed the seal to be suspended vertically from a necklace like a pendant. Necklaces weren’t the only option, though. You could also wear your seal on a bracelet or have it hang from a toggle pin attached to your clothes (Fig. 34). Fashions varied from place to place and from period to period.

Fig. 34. A picture of a woman wearing a seal hanging from a toggle pin.

Drawing by Dominique Collon

Would you buy a cylinder seal from the local seal cutter? If you were going to buy a cylinder seal, what kind would you want? How would you wear it? Do any of the designs really stand out to you? Which design would you want for your cylinder’s engraving? You might want to start thinking about this. At the end of this book, I will tell you how you can make your own cylinder seal.


PART TWO: ANCIENT CYLINDER SEALS NOW Part Two of this book will show you how and what cylinder seals lying in museums today tell us about the past. By understanding this, you will begin to see how historians reconstruct and learn about ancient civilizations.

Yale Babylonian Collection

Fig. 35. A tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh.



ythological stories may not seem like a good historical source, but historians can learn a lot about a culture from its stories and myths. Studying history is more than just knowing about wars and kings. It is about understanding cultures: their achievements, mistakes, beliefs, and customs. What, for example, would a modern person’s belief in aliens tell about our culture? Two obvious things: we believe that there are other planets and we know space travel is possible. Cylinder seals give a unique view into Mesopotamian myths and therefore into the ancient Mesopotamian “world.” Allow me to explain. We read ancient Mesopotamian myths from clay tablets (Fig. 35) inscribed with cuneiform wedges. Obviously, these are not picture books. So any scenes preserved in artwork (like cylinder seals) that depict these stories can help us see the myths as the ancient Mesopotamians imagined them. The pictures give us a door into the Mesopotamian mindset, their “world.” This in turn gives us a better understanding of the people behind the myths. This whole process requires a little informed imagination on our part. But that’s okay. As you will see, imagination is a very useful historical tool. There is only a handful of cylinder seals that clearly depict a scene from a preserved myth. We may infer at least two reasons for this scarcity. First, not all myths that were popular with seal cutters were written down. They may only have circulated orally, that is, by word of mouth. So we may have mythological scenes from a story, but not the story itself (Fig. 36). Second, not all myths that were written down (and illustrated in cylinder seals) were preserved through the ages. The tablets containing these stories may have been destroyed, lost, or still be lying in the ground over in Iraq. The good thing about Mesopotamian studies is that new tablets and cylinder seals are


© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Fig. 36. A mythological scene from an unknown story.

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 10 You can read the Akkadian myths in a book by Stephanie Dalley called Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others published by Oxford University Press (1989).

found every year. So there is still hope that some new tablet will help us identify a mythological scene on a cylinder seal. Or the opposite may happen: some new cylinder seal will show the first scene of an already well-known myth. Who knows!? The best-known myth from Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this myth a hero named Gilgamesh meets his match in another hero named Enkidu. They become friends and set off together on a quest to seek fame and immortality through their conquests. One of these conquests was the slaying of a giant demon named Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest. A terracotta (that is, baked clay) face of the demon was found by archaeologists late in the 19th century (Fig. 37). This face provided the clue that was needed to connect the story in the Epic of Gilgamesh with the scene on several cylinder seals depicting two men slaying a giant (Figs. 38 and 18). So how does this scene give us a door into the Mesopotamian mind-set?

Fig. 38. Gilgamesh (left) and Enkidu (right) killing Humbaba.

Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Fig. 37. The face of Humbaba composed of animal entrails (guts), which were used in divination.

Well, Figures 38 and 18 show Humbaba in the normal position of a defeated enemy as portrayed in Mesopotamian art: kneeling with the victor’s foot holding him down. This shows us that the Mesopotamians imagined the mythical victory over Humbaba the same way they imagined real world victories over enemies. In other words, the real Mesopotamian world influenced the Mesopotamian mythic imagination. 34

In the next scene of this myth, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, tries to tempt Gilgamesh to marry her. Gilgamesh knows better than to trust this goddess. He says no and some other stuff she didn’t like to hear. She got really angry at him for this and released the Bull of Heaven, a huge mythical creature, on him. Of course Gilgamesh and Enkidu, being the heroes of the story, end up killing this beast, too. This scene is illustrated in Figures 39 and 40. In Figure 40, you can even see Ishtar protesting behind Gilgamesh!

Photograph © 2005 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

© Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum

Fig. 39. Gilgamesh (right) and Enkidu (left) slaying the Bull of Heaven.

Fig. 40. Ishtar (above arrow) is angry!

Although the Bull of Heaven looks smaller than Gilgamesh and Enkidu on the cylinder seals, the myth itself describes the bull as huge and ferocious. The difference in the size of the bull in the myth and its size on the cylinder seal may intend to show us something. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are pictured in our scene bigger than the bull because they are more powerful than the bull; they are the winners of the fight. We already know this from the story, but this picture gives a dramatic image of this idea. This picture shows how a mythical idea can influence a real world depiction. One last thing, notice how the bull is “under foot.” Like Humbaba, he is a defeated foe. 35

The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Fig. 41. Ninurta presents his captive to the god of water and wisdom.

In another myth known in both Sumerian and Akkadian, a powerful, bird-like monster named Imdugud (in the Sumerian version) or Anzu (in the Akkadian version) steals the Tablet of Destiny from a ruler-god. In the preserved Sumerian version, the ruler-god is Enki, god of wisdom and water. In the preserved Akkadian version, the ruler god is Enlil, the god of the wind. Since the Tablet of Destiny controls the universe, its loss spells danger and near catastrophe for everyone. Thanks to a warrior-god named Ninurta, Imdugud / Anzu is captured and the Tablet of Destiny is restored to the rightful owner. Figure 41 shows Ninurta bringing the defeated villain (the upside-down bird) before the ruling deity, depicted here as the god of wisdom and water (we know this because of the water streaming from his shoulders). Notice how the picture looks like a presentation scene (see page 22 for presentation scenes). Ninurta’s victory is formally recognized by the water-god. This ceremony is similar to the way the President or Prime Minister of a country honors certain people for great achievements. Again, the real world influences how the mythical idea is shown. The impression in Figure 41, however, is a bit ambiguous. We know from archaeology that the seal is Akkadian and not Sumerian. So we expect to see Enlil depicted as the ruler-god in the presentation scene, just as he is the ruler-god in the preserved Akkadian version of the myth. But instead of Enlil we see Ea, the Akkadian god of wisdom and water. Now look back a couple of paragraphs and recall how in the Sumerian version of the myth the ruling deity is Enki, the god of wisdom and water. This should raise some questions. Does Figure 41 preserve a depiction of the Akkadian or Sumerian version of the myth? Can an Akkadian artifact depict a Sumerian myth? It may be that the keyword in our discussion about Figure 41 and the myth it depicts is “preserved.” We know the myth preserved on tablets in only two forms, the Sumerian and the Akkadian—one with Enki as the rulergod and the other with Enlil as the ruler-god. It is possible that the preserved cylinder seal depiction of this myth preserves a different version than the ones we know from preserved tablets. In this different version, it appears that the Akkadians thought of Ea, their god of wisdom and water, and not Enlil as


the ruling deity in the myth. We are again reminded that the preserved evidence limits our understanding. The last example I want to discuss presents some very special and interesting problems. On the one hand, the myth involved in this example is unknown since its story is not preserved on any tablet. On the other hand, the myth is not completely unknown since we have references to it on tablets and in later literature. This is the same kind of situation as someone telling you about a movie you haven’t seen: you sort of know about the movie, but you haven’t really seen it. References to our myth tell us that Ea, the Akkadian god of wisdom and water, sent to humanity seven or eight fish-like men called apkallus from the Apsu, a mythical underground sea. He did this in order to bring to humans the various arts of civilization. After angering Ea, the fish-men were forced to return to the Apsu. Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything else about the myth. Fish-men are known from figurines, wall sculptures, and clay plaques. They also occur on cylinder seals (Figs. 23 and 42). These cylinder seal depictions are helpful because they add to our evidence for understanding who and what these strange creatures were. Can we assume that all of these artistic depictions of fish-men are mythological apkallus? Well, not yet. There’s a little problem. A certain group of priests, called ashipus, claimed the apkallus as their “mythical ancestors” and Ea as their patron god. Because of this, some scholars decided that these priests must have dressed up in fish-like robes to honor their mythological origins. This supposedly explained why we have pictures of fish-men performing rituals like ashipu-priests (Fig. 23). Do you see the problem this theory creates? Knowing something about the apkallu myth and having this theory about the robes worn by ashipu-priests force the historian to ask this question: “Are the guys who look like fish-men on cylinder seals apkallus or really ashipu-priests dressed up like apkallus?” It may sound bizarre, but it is an important question. The answer to this question came by piecing together a historical jigsaw puzzle. Let’s think about the pieces I have already mentioned along with a few more.


Courtesy of Bibel + Orient Museum, Fribourg

Fig. 42. The cylinder seal has some damage, but notice the fish-man on the left (repeated on the far right).

First, we have the references to a myth involving fish-men called apkallus.


x Second, we have the figurines, wall sculptures, clay plaques, and cylinder seals showing scenes of fish-men.

Third, scholars have found tablets that describe a ritual in which fishmen figurines are buried under certain places of a building. This ritual was intended to protect the building against evil.


Fourth, archaeologists have found these buried fish-men figurines. So we know that the rituals were actually performed.


x Fifth, the Mesopotamians liked to use all kinds of images of mythological creatures to protect temples, buildings, and palaces. This is similar to using a cross as protection against vampires.

Sixth, some priests called ashipus claimed the apkallu-mythological creatures as their mythical ancestors. But many other religious specialists had similar mythical ideas about their professions’ origins, and we have no good reasons to believe that they dressed up to honor their mythological ancestors. What makes the ashipu-priests different?

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 11 One reference to the myth of the fish-men is found in the writings of Berossos, a priest of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. Berossos lived during the late 4th to early 3rd century BCE (around 330-275 BCE, but no one knows for sure). But his writings didn’t survive. So how do we know about them? We only know about his writings because other ancient authors copied portions of them into their own writings. Berossos wrote his books around 300 BCE. Then, parts of these books were copied by a man named Alexander Polyhistor. His work is also now lost. But before it was lost, two other authors used his work as a source for their writings: the Jewish historian Josephus (who lived around 37-100 CE) and the church father Eusebius (who died in 342 CE). The work of both of these men is preserved, so we have parts of Berossos’ work preserved in theirs! This kind of “chain preservation” is not unusual to the student of ancient history.


Okay, look over the pieces of the puzzle again. Is there anything that really supports the idea of ashipu-priests dressing up like fish-men? No. When everything is taken into account, the pieces fit together to prove that the fishmen on cylinder seals (and other pieces of art) must be seen as the mythological apkallus and not as ashipu-priests. All of the evidence points toward this conclusion. The idea of ashipu-priests dressing up like fish-men was based on assumptions that had no good evidence to support it. But it wasn’t a stupid idea. It was imaginative (in a good way) and actually helped provoke more studies about the fish-men. It just happens sometimes that imaginative and interesting theories turn out to be wrong: the fish-men are not ashipu-priests; they are mythological apkallus. “So what!” you say, “What’s the big deal?” Well, it doesn’t seem like much, but in Mesopotamian Studies every new piece of information is important. Now scholars must be careful how they use artistic depictions of fish-men for reconstructing priestly duties. This will affect how we understand Mesopotamian religion. It also means that the cylinder seal


designs may in fact be showing a scene from the lost myth of the apkallus. Who knows, the scenes may one day help a scholar identify a tablet preserving the lost myth. Little pieces of evidence can have far-reaching consequences. A close look at mythological scenes on cylinder seals has shown us how myth and reality influenced one another in the Mesopotamian mindset. This information is a wonderful insight into Mesopotamian culture. But, as with the problem of the fish-men, it can also lead to some difficulties for historians. The historian asks, “How do we distinguish myth from reality in ancient depictions of Mesopotamian culture?” The best answer at this point may be to say, “That’s a good question. Let’s think about it some more!” Do you have any ideas?


The Gorelick Collection, #43

Fig. 43. In pursuit of a mythological creature.



ylinder seals belonged to people, the temple, and the palace. They were important and valuable items. People didn’t just let them lie around waiting for archaeologists to find them. Rather, archaeologists find cylinder seals (and other artifacts) usually because people unwillingly left them behind. I say usually because sometimes the ancient Mesopotamians would bury things on purpose. Things buried on purpose would include items put in a grave, old and broken stuff used to fill in a hole, or objects buried because a ritual said the Mesopotamians were supposed to bury them. The cylinder seal found in a skeleton’s mouth and the fish-men figurines found under buildings are examples of things buried on purpose. But what does it mean to unwillingly leave something behind? It means a couple of things. First, it could mean some people lost their cylinder seals. They may have accidentally dropped them somewhere and never could find them again. Second, it could mean that something or someone destroyed the cylinder seal owner’s city or village. The “somethings” may have been starvation, a fire, a flood, an earthquake, or other natural disaster. The “someones” were invading armies or other attackers. This second case was very frequent in Mesopotamia. When something or someone bad came to a city, people either fled quickly or were killed. In either case, many things would have been left behind. These events were all very unfortunate for the ancients. But the things left behind from these unfortunate events make reconstructing ancient history possible. Whatever the attackers didn’t take, the fires didn’t burn, or the weather didn’t destroy was eventually covered over by dirt and remained in the ground until archaeologists would find it. 41

FAR FROM HOME In 1981 a very worn cylinder seal with a presentation scene on it (just barely recognizable) was discovered in Italy. It was found inside a box containing relics from the Medieval Crusades. Apparently, a soldier had acquired the seal and other relics while on crusade and had brought them home. They all made their way into this box at some point, and there they stayed on a shelf for over five hundred years. Interestingly, the seal itself is more than eight times older than that, dating to the late third millennium BCE (about 2300 BCE)! Since we are sure the seal is from Mesopotamia, we can infer that this seal has traveled a long way from home. The seal is now kept at the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Italy. The stone material of the cylinder seal has worn away so much that its impression looks like waves and bumps on clay to most people.

But you have to be careful about using cylinder seals as evidence. Here’s a fictional scenario to show why. An army comes to destroy a town in Mesopotamia. In the process of burning down the city, a soldier picks up an expensive cylinder seal in one of the houses. The date is 1760 BCE. He passes the cylinder seal down to his daughter, and then she does the same for her son. The son is a merchant and carries the cylinder seal with him on a trading trip to Syria. He sells it to a guy from Egypt. The Egyptian guy returns home and passes it down to his son. Then, one day the son’s town is destroyed and buried under the sand. It could be 1500 BCE by this time. The seal lies buried there for a few thousand years until archaeologists find it. But an archaeologist who finds this Mesopotamian seal in Egypt would be foolish to think they had found a Mesopotamian town! This scenario didn’t really happen. But we do know that archaeologists working in Egypt have found Mesopotamian cylinder seals there. These cylinder seals were several hundred years older than the Egyptian archaeological site itself. That means something like our story really took place. The text note on the left side of this page presents an extreme example of this! It also means that archaeologists have to be careful how they piece together the facts. So now you know an artifact can be buried at a much later time than when it was made. Can the opposite happen? Can newer artifacts be buried with older ones? Yes. But first let me explain a basic idea in archaeology. An archaeological site is made up of many layers. Each layer represents a time period of people living there (Fig. 44). In Mesopotamia, people built houses, and natural disasters, armies, or the owners themselves destroyed them. (In the last case, an owner would destroy his own house to build a new one.) The same people or new people would then come along and rebuild the city or village on top of the old rubble. This happened many, many times over thousands of years. For this reason, some sites have grown very tall, in some places over 60 feet high! They look like hills from a distance. Archaeologists in the Near East call these hills “tells,” a word that comes from Arabic and Hebrew.


Fig. 44. Archaeologists dig step trenches down the side of an ancient tell. This lets them see all the different layers left behind by past residents. It’s also easier to do this than to dig a big hole straight down through the tell. People lived on this tell from before 4000 BCE to about 1000 CE, with a very long interruption between the Early Bronze Age (2000 BCE) and the Islamic Period (700 CE). The picture above shows the trench from the top of the tell. The picture on the right shows the trench from far away. Do you see how it comes straight down the side of the hill? Both images courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

The deeper you go into the ground at a tell, the older the layer is. It’s like your garbage can. If the trash man empties your trash can Monday afternoon, then Monday evening’s trash will be the first trash to go into the empty trash can. Tuesday’s trash is second in the can. Then Wednesday’s, and so on. Monday evening’s trash is at the bottom of your trash can. It’s older than Saturday’s trash, which will be near the top. Get the idea? Deeper equals older.


NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 12 As we saw earlier, the inscription on a cylinder seal can be very important for identifying names of cities and kings. Most cylinder seals, however, do not provide such important historical clues. In fact, the majority of seals only become another little piece in the giant puzzle of Glyptic Studies, the study of cylinder seal designs. If the seal is inscribed with someone’s name, however, it becomes a tiny piece in another giant puzzle called prosopography. This is the study of people named in ancient records and their relationships to other known people. Scholars piece this information together and publish catalogs of the results. This allows historians to try to draw up a bigger picture about ancient society. They try to reconstruct family relationships, business affairs, and political or religious activities of groups of people in ancient records. Wouldn’t it be weird if your name ended up in a prosopography catalog 4000 years from now?

So, back to our question: Can newer stuff be buried with old stuff? Yes. But how? Here are several scenarios in which this could happen. x Little animals such as mice and rats like to dig and burrow. If they burrowed past a cylinder seal, it might roll down their hole into a deeper level of the tell. Remember, deeper means older. x A heavy rain could wash a seal from its original place to a place deeper in the site. x Sometimes people had to dig a hole and fill it with stuff for a ritual. Archaeologists have found holes like this filled with artifacts. Without careful excavation, things at the bottom of the hole may appear older (because they are deeper) than they really are. x

A seal could have fallen into an ancient well or drain.

x Finally, it is possible that archaeologists could shake a cylinder seal free from an upper layer of an archaeological trench while digging and make it fall to a lower layer.

Archaeologists are trained to deal with all of these problems and possibilities. So cylinder seals can still be very valuable for historical information. Here are a few examples. A few years back, some archaeologists were digging in Syria on an unidentified site. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that they didn’t know where they were. It just means they didn’t know the ancient name of the place. The archaeologists found an inscribed cylinder seal that belonged to the site. After reading the inscription, they learned the name of the city and the name of one of its kings. This little piece of information opened up possibilities of finding out more about the city. Historians could now search cuneiform tablets from different sites to see if the city or king was mentioned in them by name. If so, they could learn more about their site.


Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Fig. 45. The impression of an Indian cylinder seal found in northern Mesopotamian. The cylinder seal itself is pictured below.

Cylinder seals can also make connections between two or more ancient sites or civilizations. An example of this comes from cylinder seals found in several Mesopotamian cities with designs usually found on seals from India and Pakistan (for example, Fig. 45). The Mesopotamians never used the elephant and rhinoceros in their art, and the rhinoceros never even existed in Mesopotamia. For this reason, scholars believe these seals came from India or Pakistan. The connection between Mesopotamia and India and Pakistan is confirmed by written records from the same time period as the cylinder seals. This proves trade routes existed between these lands in ancient times. Cylinder seals can assist in reconstructing other ancient trade routes, too. In this next example, it was the material used in making the cylinder seal that provided the evidence, not the design. Lapis lazuli is a beautiful blue stone the ancients used for jewelry, inlay, beads, and cylinder seals (the blue material in Fig. 60 is lapis lazuli). Archaeologists have determined that almost all lapis lazuli found in Mesopotamia came from a source (or region) in what we now call Afghanistan. This could mean one of two things: (1.) the Mesopotamians were trading with sites in ancient Afghanistan or (2.) the Mesopotamians were trading with places who were themselves trading with sites in ancient Afghanistan. Either way, we are able to see how material was passed around from one place to another. But scholars can squeeze even more historical information from this evidence. When trade was good, archaeologists will find more lapis lazuli at a 45

site. When trade was not so good, they find less. The different amounts of lapis lazuli found in various layers of a particular site can help historians reconstruct that site’s economic history. In other words, the amount of lapis lazuli helps tell us whether a city was wealthy, average, or poor; it also can tell us when this was true and for how long. In early times before private individuals used cylinder seals, scholars think cylinder seals were used mostly by temple officials. The temple was more than just a religious building. It was also a very important location for business transactions and distribution of goods. Scholars are studying these early preserved tablets and the seal impressions on them. From this, they are building up an idea of how this institution worked. Some scholars think men and women working for these early temples used different kinds of seals to show what kind of work they did. For example, men were in charge of the herds, so they may have used seals with cattle pictured on them (flip back to Fig. 15). Women, on the other hand, were in charge of making woven products and pottery. So they may have used seals with pictures of these activities on them. But it is not only early temple tablets and their impressions that are useful. Any tablet with an impression can help scholars reconstruct Mesopotamian legal and business practices. Remember, cylinder seals eventually became the “signature” of an individual on any legal or business tablet (flip back to Fig. 31). The cylinder seal impressions on these tablets can give us insight into how the Mesopotamians did business and how their legal system worked in many periods of Mesopotamian history. These practices include things like paying workers, renting fields, buying animals, adopting children, marriage, and divorce. (Their records are not that much different from ours really!) Business and legal transactions required more than just two people. There usually had to be witnesses, too. Some witnesses had to seal the tablet. But not always. Asking questions like “Who had to seal the tablet and why?” help historians understand more about this aspect of Mesopotamian culture.



© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Fig. 46. In this seal we see Tishatal as a scribe. The inscription says “An-zabazuna, strong, king. Tishatal, the scribe, is your servant.”

De Clerq Collection, #121

Fig. 47. In this seal we discover that Tishatal eventually became a king. The inscription reads “Tishatal, king of Harhar. Masiam-Eshtar is your servant.”

In an unusual case, prosopography studies have helped us follow the remarkable career of one individual, a man named Tishatal. He went from being a scribe in one town to some kind of official in another to a king in still another (Figs. 46 and 47)!

Can you think of any other ways a cylinder seal might be helpful in reconstructing the past? Maybe you can’t right now; but one day — eureka! — you will get an idea! The fun thing about studying ancient history is you never know how the puzzle will fit together. It’s like being a detective. Sometimes, the most interesting things about the past come from new ways of looking at the evidence and unexpected or newly discovered sources of information. Historians, like ancient seal cutters, have to be creative and inventive at their craft. That doesn’t mean they make things up. It means they try to find new evidence or new combinations of evidence to learn more about the past. And that takes time, hard work, and a lot of thought—the same ingredients for making a good cylinder seal. 47

The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Fig. 48. A mischwesen creature (part lion, part eagle) attacking a hero.

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Fig. 49. Do you see the bull-man?



e have already seen that cylinder seals can tell us a great deal about the ideas and beliefs of the ancient people who used them. In this chapter, we will see several more very important Mesopotamian ideas found in cylinder seal engravings. Do you remember the different examples of contest scenes in chapter 2? Flip back to Figures 17, 19, and 20. These scenes show that the Mesopotamians were concerned about predators devouring the animals they used for food. Sometimes the predators were regular animals like lions, and sometimes they were mythical animals. Remember the Mesopotamians didn’t have butcher shops at their local grocery store with nice refrigerated display cases. If people wanted meat, they had to either buy it from herders or hunt it for themselves. Because of this, lions, for example, would be a feared menace to herders and an unwanted competitor to hunters. Now look at the impression in Figure 48. Can you identify this animal? You could look all day on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. You’ll never see one of these things attacking some crazy guy in the Australian outback. And the animal isn’t extinct, either. This is a mythical creature called a lion-griffin or lion-dragon. It combines the parts of a lion and an eagle to create a terrifying, powerful creature. The combination of different animals or combining animals with humans was intended to take the scariest features of each and combine them to make an even scarier thing (flip back to Fig. 26). When combining an animal and a human, the human part probably represents intelligence. History shows us this can be one of our scariest features! There are many different kinds of these creatures in Mesopotamian art. When you look at one, try to decide what animals the artist combined to make his mythical beast (Figs. 49 and 50).


NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 13 Scholars call the lion-griffin and other mixed creatures mischwesen (`mish-vay-zin). This is a German word meaning “mixed-being.”

All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fig. 50. Look at these strange creatures! By the way, this is a variation of the scene showing Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing Humbaba (figs. 18 and 38).

University of Pennsylvania Museum

Fig. 51. The god of water in his watery home (left side). Also, do you see the sun god rising from between the mountains (right of center)? He has rays coming from his shoulders and is holding a saw.

Drawing by Christy Lenzi

Fig. 53. The gods are angry!

“But why,” you might ask, “did they want to draw such terrifying and strange things?” The Mesopotamians believed in many evil and scary forces surrounding them in their environment. Talking about or creating artwork about their fears, no doubt, helped the ancients deal with these fears. It was a way to gain some control over them. Another important idea in ancient Mesopotamia was fertility. Whether it was a good barley crop, lots of livestock, or plenty of kids running around, Mesopotamians wanted living things to multiply. Having lots of living things around them was a sign of abundance. Knowing this, it is no surprise that the water god and vegetation gods and goddesses appear very frequently in Mesopotamian art. Both water and vegetation are necessary to living things. Enki, in Sumerian, or Ea, in Akkadian, was the water god. He is easily identified by the streams of water coming out of his shoulders. Flip back to Figure 41 and look at Figure 51. The vegetation deities have plants growing out of their shoulders (Fig. 52). As you can see, the gods were very important in the lives of the Mesopotamians. This idea is clearly expressed in cylinder seals. Whether you are looking at the pictures of gods and goddesses on cylinder seals or reading their inscriptions, it is © Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum easy to see that Mesopotamians Fig. 52. Vegetation deities with stalks were constantly thinking about sprouting from their shoulders. the gods. We already know the importance of the gods from preserved written records. But cylinder seals again provide a different perspective, a new kind of evidence. For example, we know from written evidence that the gods acted like people in many ways. Cylinder seals, however, actually show a scene of them fighting like a group of neighborhood children (Fig. 53)! But how do we know when we are looking at a deity? Divine beings are easily identified in Mesopotamian art: they always wear a horned-crown. Look at Figures 24, 41, 51, 52, and 53 for some examples. Do you see the


horned-crown? This special head gear is a sure sign that we are looking at a deity. Sometimes a cylinder seal gives a unique picture of an idea we might not have figured out without it. Flip back to Figure 24. Do you see the sun god rising between the mountains? What is he holding? A saw (see also Fig. 51). He is cutting his way through the mountains so he can rise. If you think about it, this makes sense in a way. Remember, these are people who believed the earth was flat and could only observe the sun rising slowly through the eastern mountains with their naked eye. Shamash, the sun god, was the sun. And every morning he cut his way through the eastern horizon. How else could he rise? Myth and religion were very important to the Mesopotamians. They didn’t separate science from religion, faith from fact, or their lives and those of the gods. Their “world” was very different from our own. In fact, it’s not just the religious ideas, but all of the Mesopotamian ideas in this chapter that are different from our own. This doesn’t make them foolish or backwards. Just different. That is what makes the Mesopotamians and their culture so fascinating!


NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 14 No matter how hard historians try, certain designs and symbols on seals simply cannot be explained very well. For example, scholars have pulled their hair out over the mysterious “sacred tree” (Fig. 23). The image appears on numerous cylinder seals and other pieces of art. But it is never mentioned in the written literature. No one is quite sure what it means. To read more about different symbols in Mesopotamian art, check out a book called Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary by Jeremy Black and Anthony Green published by University of Texas Press (1992). It has short entries on a multitude of gods, demons, and symbols from Apsu to zodiac.

Photograph © 2005 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Fig. 54. Notice the teeming animals and vegetation.



n their cylinder seal engravings the Mesopotamians have preserved little windows onto their landscapes, buildings, and other cultural items. These things make up the environment of their lives. In other words, it shows how the Mesopotamians lived, what they lived in, and what surrounded them in their daily life. In some ways, these scenes also give us yet another glimpse into Mesopotamian ideas. Every drawing contains something in it about the artist and his way of seeing things. Take, for example, the impression in Figure 54. Here we see a mountainscape, probably a view of the Zagros mountain range to the east of Mesopotamia. On and around the mountain range are two small hunters and all kinds of animals: lions, mountain goats, a boar, and a fox. Notice also the trees. Trees were not (and still are not) common in southern Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamians had to go to the mountain forests to get their timber. We might see in this scene a hunter’s and woodsman’s paradise. It shows a land of abundant game and timber. So this seal really shows us two things. First, it gives us a picture of a mountainscape in Mesopotamia. Just in case we forgot to check the maps, this seal proves there was rugged terrain near Mesopotamia! Second, it also lets us attempt to see how the Mesopotamians thought about the mountains. I say “attempt” because our interpretations of scenes are sometimes more “educated guesses” than sure results. This, too, is part of being a historian. Cylinder seals provide important evidence for understanding Mesopotamian architecture and its history. For example, we know from texts and ruins that the Mesopotamians built pyramid-like structures called ziggurats (Fig. 55). We also know from ancient references and clues in the 53

Courtesy of Michael Roaf

Fig. 55. A very partially restored ziggurat of ancient Dur-Kurigalzu in southern Iraq.

NOTE FOR YOUNG SCHOLARS 15 Herodo-who? Herodotus was a Greek historian, sometimes mistakenly called the father of history. He lived in Greece during the fifth century BCE (the 400s). Herodotus wrote a very interesting and very long book called The Histories in which he describes the wars between the Persians and Greeks. But while he does this, he also describes the customs, stories, and other interesting little tid-bits about many different ancient peoples and cultures. The book is as amusing as it is interesting! You can find Herodotus’ The Histories at most any library or bookstore. It’s a classic.

ruins that the ziggurats consisted of several steps or levels. But since no ziggurat is fully preserved, we don’t know from the ruins how many levels any one ziggurat had. According to Herodotus, the ziggurat in Babylon had seven levels. We can believe him or disbelieve him if we want. There’s just no good evidence to prove him right or wrong. At the ancient site of Ashur, on the other hand, a few cylinder seals actually show that city’s ziggurat in their designs. Ashur’s main ziggurat probably only had four levels. So even though we don’t have an eye-witness account, we do have an idea about how many levels Ashur’s ziggurat had because we have ancient “pictures” of it (Fig. 56). From this information, scholars can estimate how high the ziggurat may have been. For example, cylinder seals have helped archaeologists trying to reconstruct the ziggurat at Ur (Fig. 57).

Courtesy of Ellen McAdams

Fig. 57. A partially restored ziggurat in the distance at ancient Ur in present-day southern Iraq.

Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

Fig. 56. A modern impression of a seal from Ashur. It clearly shows a four level ziggurat.


Other kinds of buildings appear on cylinder seals, too. As with the ziggurats, these pictures help us better understand Mesopotamian architecture. For example, we know from other kinds of artwork and artifacts that Assyrian city walls and towers had what architects call crenelations on their tops. The walls and towers looked like medieval castles, the kind with the “teeth” on top. Cylinder seals provide the earliest evidence for this building style. They prove the Assyrians used crenelations on their buildings before the year 1000 BCE (Fig. 58). This isn’t an earth-shaking discovery. But remember, every new piece of evidence helps in the puzzle of historical reconstruction. Many, many more objects find places on cylinder seals. Each of these sheds light on the cultural environment in ancient Mesopotamia. For example, cylinder seal engravings depict musical instruments, clothes, boats, chariots, altars, warfare machinery, furniture, hand tools, and alien space craft. Okay, not alien space craft. But we do find the rest of the list. And this is just a small sample. So cylinder seals depict many objects that help fill in the picture of Mesopotamian life. Even small things can be significant. For example, a cylinder seal preserves the earliest representation (from before 3000 BCE) of a “composite double-recurved bow.” This is the kind of archer’s bow you might see high schoolers shooting in gym class (Fig. 59). As strange as this sounds, this is an important clue for historians of technology. We now know that people were using this weapon over 5000 years ago!

Drawing by Dominique Collon

Fig. 59. A line drawing of an ancient seal impression showing the first picture known to historians of composite double-recurved bows.


Drawing by Dominique Collon

Fig. 58. A line drawing of an ancient seal impression of Assyrian city walls and towers.

There is occasionally a case where a cylinder seal actually shows us what an already discovered artifact should look like, what it was used for, and how. A very famous offering stand from Ur is one such case (Fig. 60). When archaeologists found the offering stand, it was flattened out under the weight of the debris covering it. Conservators had to restore it carefully. An ancient seal impression (Fig. 61) of a similar offering stand confirms the conservator’s reconstruction of the once-flattened artifact. Since scholars have recognized the similarities between the offering stand and the seal impression, they can be certain of the stand’s use. The lapis lazuli horns and the gold shaft behind the animal’s head held a bowl or saucer of food being offered to a god or goddess.

© Copyright The Trustees of The British Museum

Drawing by Christy Lenzi

Fig. 60. An offering stand from Ur.

Fig. 61. A line drawing of an ancient cylinder seal impression showing an offering stand in use.

Do you see how these little cylinder seals can be windows on whole landscapes, huge buildings, and even the smallest, seemingly unimportant elements of Mesopotamian life? All of these combine with the many other things we have discussed in this book to reveal a wonderfully unfolding view of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.


The view, however, is still incomplete. More windows on the events, culture, and thought world of the Mesopotamians need to be opened. More detectives, more scholars, are needed to find clues, piece the puzzle together, and widen our view on these fascinating people. The reconstruction of an ancient civilization and its history is a difficult but very fun kind of detective work. All kinds of scholars and specialists like archaeologists, geologists, chemists, anthropologists, art historians, epigraphers (people who copy the writing from ancient artifacts with inscriptions on them), and philologists (people who figure out what inscriptions say and mean) have to work together in the effort. Join the work or enjoy the ever expanding view. But whatever you do, enjoy the creations of this past civilization.


MAKE YOUR OWN CYLINDER SEAL MATERIALS Bakeable clay Some for the cylinder seal Some for rolling out the seal’s impression A small piece of thread, about 6 inches long A few toothpicks Carving tools: Toothpicks Butterknife A dull pencil Anything else that might help you carve your design One adult to help Time: about one hour Patience INSTRUCTIONS 1. Read the instructions about baking on your package of clay before you rip it open. Then, rip it open. 2. Roll and knead the clay for a while to soften it. Once you warm it up, pinch off the amount you want to use to make your cylinder seal. You may need to experiment a few times with the next step in order to see how much clay you really need to pinch off here. Since we are not working with stone, starting over is no big deal. 3. Roll out the lump of clay on a clean, smooth surface with the palm of your hand. Roll it back and forth until you get a tube shape in the middle of the clay lump. The tube should be as fat as you want your cylinder seal


to be. The ends of the clay tube will not be straight yet. But that’s okay for now. From this point on, you will want to handle the clay gently. If you gouge it or leave big fingerprints all over the tube of clay, then your cylinder seal will have imperfections all over it. 4. Get your piece of thread. You are going to cut the ends of your seal with this. Loop the thread around the tube where you want the cylinder seal’s end to be. Make sure the loop goes straight across the tube so the cylinder seal’s ends will be nice and flat. Then, pull both pieces of the thread away from the tube. This will make the thread cut through the clay and give you a nice flat end. Do the same for the other end. Now you have a cylinder. 5. At this point, you may need to lightly roll your cylinder again to straighten out the edges. But don’t roll it too much or you will have to start over. You may also want to tap each end of the cylinder against the table to shape or flatten them some more. If you tap too hard it will make the cylinder bulge at the ends. Be careful. 6. Set your cylinder on its end. Take a toothpick and carefully poke it into the center of the cylinder’s top. Push it gently into the clay until it is about half-way through the cylinder. (If the toothpick is long enough, you may want to go ahead and push it all the way through the cylinder.) Then, gently enlarge the hole by circling the inside of the hole with the toothpick. Be careful not to pivot the toothpick. The hole needs to be widened from the end of the cylinder all the way into the middle. So move the whole toothpick around, not just the part at the top of the hole. This hole only needs to be big enough for a string to go through it. Turn the cylinder over and do the same on the other end. Do your best to make sure the two holes meet in the center. After you have completed this step, you will have your “blank.” 7. Remember, whatever you carve on your seal will appear backward when you roll it across clay. If you want to carve your name on your seal, first write your name on a piece of paper darkly. Turn the piece of paper over and trace your name onto the backside of the paper. What you will see is your name in mirror-image. If you carve the letters of your name on your cylinder seal just like this and in this order, your name will come out properly in the impression. 8. When you are ready, take your carving tools and carve your design. Again, be careful not to press too hard. You won’t want gouges or fingerprints on your engraving! A pencil works well for carving letters. Small, blunt-ended things can imitate the drilled look nicely. Be creative!


9. With an adult’s help, follow the baking directions on the package your clay came in. Do not use a microwave to bake your cylinder seal. And only bake clay that says it can be baked. Be sure you can get fresh air into the kitchen. Many modern clays stink when they are baking! 10. After the cylinder has baked and cooled properly, you are ready to try it out. Take some of your left-over clay and flatten it out. Then, pushing your cylinder seal firmly into the clay with the palm of your hand, roll your seal across the clay. The result is your cylinder seal’s impression. Did it look like you thought it would? Mine didn’t when I first tried it! But don’t worry, it’s only your first try. Good luck and have fun! FOR THE MASTER SEAL CUTTER Here’s an additional step you may want to try after you have mastered the basics. MATERIALS A piece of paper A pencil A ruler Your blank cylinder seal In order for you to see how much space you will have for your engraving, you may want to measure the area on your cylinder’s side. The instructions for this sound more difficult than they are. All you are doing is making a rectangle. The rectangle will show how much space your cylinder takes to roll all the way around one time. This shows how much space you have to make your design. Start by drawing a straight line on the left side of a piece of paper. The line should be longer than your cylinder and should go up and down, not side to side, on the paper. Set your cylinder on this line (the length of the cylinder should be touching the line from end to end). At the very top and bottom of the cylinder make a small dot on the paper right on that line. Now, lightly put a small mark in the clay on the top and bottom of your cylinder, right above the dot on your paper. Roll the cylinder straight across the paper until the marks on the cylinder are again closest to the paper. Put a dot on the paper under each mark on the cylinder, one at the top of the cylinder and one at the bottom. Using a ruler, draw a straight line over these dots (a line going up and down like the first line on the left side of the paper). Now set your ruler across your paper. Connect the top and bottom dots on each line. You should now have a rectangle. This rectangle shows how much space you have for your design. You can use this to plan how you want to carve the engraving.



The following books may be found in the children’s section of your local public library. They are all very informative and written for kids. Jil Fine, Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia. PowerKids Press, 2003. Naida Kirkpatrick, The Sumerians. Understanding People in the Past. Heinemann Library, 2003. Elaine Landau, The Babylonians. Millbrook Press, 1997. Elaine Landau, The Sumerians. Millbrook Press, 1997. Elaine Landau, The Assyrians. Millbrook Press, 1997. John Malam, Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent: 10,000 to 539 B.C. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999. Leila Merrell Foster, The Sumerians. Franklin Watts, 1990. Carol Moss, Science in Ancient Mesopotamia. Franklin Watts, 1988. Amanda H. Podany and Marni McGee, The Ancient Near Eastern World. Oxford Press, 2005. Pamela Service, Mesopotamia. Benchmark Books, 1998. Jennifer Westwood and Michael Charton, Gilgamesh and Other Babylonian Tales. Coward-McCann, 1970. The following are some books that may be more difficult to read, but are very handy to know about. Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. University of Texas Press, 1992. Dominique Collon, Near Eastern Seals. University of California Press/British Museum, 1990. Dominique Collon, First Impressions. University of Chicago Press, 1987. The best introduction to cylinder seals in English. It is presently out of print. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press, 1989.


Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer: Twenty-seven “Firsts” in Man’s Recorded History. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959. Henrietta McCall, Mesopotamian Myths. University of Texas Press, 1990. Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Facts on File, 1996. Activity Books

These books teach about Mesopotamia through doing. Ancient Near East Coloring Book. Bellerophon Books, 1983. For your little brothers and sisters, of course! British Museum Press Staff, The Assyrians Activity Book. Brimax Books Limited, 1999. Marian Broida, The Ancient Egyptians and Their Neighbors: An Activity Guide. Chicago Review Press, 1999. Highly recommended. Fiction Based on Mesopotamian Stories or History

Karen S. Foster, The City of Rainbows: A Tale from Ancient Sumer. University Museum Publications, 1999. A retelling of a Sumerian folktale. Christy Lenzi, “False Impressions” in Cricket Magazine October 2004 through January 2005 issues. Ludmila Zeman, Gilgamesh the King. Tundra Books of Northern New York, 1998. Ludmila Zeman, The Revenge of Ishtar. Tundra Books of Northern New York, 1998. Ludmila Zeman, The Last Quest of Gilgamesh. Tundra Books of Northern New York, 1998. These last three books are retellings of parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. They are translated from French. VIDEO “Ancient Mesopotamia” in the Ancient Civilizations for Children series. Schlessinger Media, 1998. 23 minutes. Available at A FEW WEBPAGES (AND MUSEUMS) This is the British Museum’s Mesopotamia website for kids. Lots of fun. Highly recommended.

63 This site shows a few pictures of cylinder seals and their impressions from the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. At this site, the Harvard Semitic Museum in Cambridge, MA displays five pictures of seal impressions from an area northwest of Mesopotamia. There are many other artifacts to see, too. Just click around. This webpage directs you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ancient Near Eastern Art collection in New York City. This address will allow you to see one hundred highlights in their collection, usually including several cylinder seals. Just click on the one you want to see more closely. At this site you can tour the Chicago Oriental Institute’s Assyrian Gallery. (You have to download some free software to view it properly.) There’s more than just cylinder seals here, too. This site lets you see your name in cuneiform! Here is another site from Chicago’s Oriental Institute. This is a huge index of just about everything Mesopotamian on the web (and other ancient cultures, too). You could spend all day here surfing for Mesopotamian stuff! This final webpage is dedicated to documenting the effects of military activities and looting on archaeological sites in Iraq. There is an enormous amount of information here and many very good pictures. Many large universities, private and public, and art museums own a few cylinder seals. There are also numerous individual collectors all over the world. Chances are, if you are interested in seeing a real cylinder seal in person, it is probably only a short drive away.


CYLINDER SEAL REPLICA If you want to buy a replica of a real cylinder seal from the 8th -7th Century BCE, contact the gift shop at the Oriental Institute in Chicago (773-702-9510 or [email protected]). The last time I checked (March of 2005), the replica cost $8.00 plus shipping. CYLINDER SEAL CD-ROM “Seals—A Journey in Time on CD-ROM.” For Windows and Mac. Bible Lands Museum. The Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem presents its collection of seals in this interactive, mulitmedia CDROM. Available through TEACHER RESOURCE This site covers the most important aspects of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. It is sponsored by the Oriental Institute in Chicago. I highly recommended this site to teachers and nosy students.