Ancient Near East Seal Collection


Ancient Near Eastern Seals: Mobility and Transfer

It is not surprising that when looking at seals we are captured by their small size and variety of iconographic motifs carved on their surface. The images and the shapes of the seals are an incredible source of information that can help us postulate the region in which each seal was used. For example, stone cylinder seals are typically found throughout the ancient Near East and, in particular, in Syro-Mesopotamia, while round stone stamp seals are from the Gulf region, and compartmental seals are from central Asia. Yet, one of the most important attributes of seals is that these were highly mobile objects, and they were key to the circulation of motifs throughout the ancient world. A look at their physical characteristics (i.e., their small size, and the perforations on the back of stamp seals or vertically through the cylinder seals) indicate that these were attached to an implement (organic or metal) and worn as part of a necklace or as pins on clothing. These factors, along with their role as administrative tools used for long distance trade, made these objects readily transportable and a necessary commodity. The mobility of seals, the origin of which can be dated back to the sixth millennium BCE in Syro-Mesopotamia, made it possible for them to be adopted in neighboring and distant regions. As stamp seals and cylinder seals were manufactured and used outside the Near East during various periods, their iconographic repertoire was impacted. New, reinvented, and modified motifs were used, reflecting each cultural group’s artistic tradition. Such diversity allows the possibility for specialists to identify regional differences and assign seals to a specific culture.

Explore the map highlighting some of the seals from the collection that can be attributed to Egypt, Cyprus, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Bactria.