KS3 – Mesopotamian Seals

Today we have a huge number of ways of identifying one another and of proving our identity to others, especially the authorities. We have passports, driving licences, fingerprinting, DNA analysis and so many others. Many of these, however, have only been over the last few decades or even years, yet we have always had the need to prove who we are to others and to prove our identities on legal documents. This has been a problem for as long as we have lived in communities bigger than those which consist of our families and our immediate neighbours who have been our partners in growing up. For the Mesopotamians, nations who traded over large distances and kept records on almost as many aspects of life as we do today, this was a pressing problem. Writing, where it was available to the individual Mesopotamian, was either easily forged or more likely was carried out by a priest scribe on behalf of the citizen. Where signatures are not an option and the fingerprint is not a viable option, how does a merchant, a noble, a member of the governing castes, manage to prove his identity to those who require proof? The answer came in the form of seals, usually as a small pillar which was intricately carved with images that were specific in identifying the individual and were easily recognisable as associating with the owner, the record being held in the temples of the gods or goddesses as proof of the identity of the owner. These seals were small and were attached to either a chain or a thick leather strap and worn around the neck of the owner, or might be carried in a small leather holder which would be worn on the person of the individual to whom it belonged or the overseer who had the permission to serve as the representative of his master in any specific and defined business. The symbolism of the images and the written messages would be intricate and hold specific associations with certain divinities or areas of the land and tasks. The understanding of the main points of such seals and magical sigils which make up many of the carvings is key to our wider comprehension of the individuals who composed the social hierarchies of the Mesopotamian cities.

The earliest attested seals date to some 3,500 BCE

fig 1 – cdli.ucla.edu/ Vorderasiatisches Museum – VA 13624

This dates from the Period Uruk V 3500-3350 BCE. The inscription is termed ‘protocuneiform’. This means that it is the inscription form which precedes cuneiform writing proper in its alphabetic/phonetic/logographic forms of the later languages. Due to this, we cannot say for certain which language it is in, though likely a form of early Sumerian. A line drawing of the inscription is shown in figure 2.

fig 2: cdli.ucla.edu/dl/lineart/P000755_ls.jpg

On the seal, we can see a variety of animals, some of which were to become familiar leitmotivs in the iconography of seals through until the Persian period. The most obvious is the lion (?) which is attacking another animal with a curling tail. On the far left are a bird of prey (talons) and what may be an ass. Between the two animal representations are jars or amphorae, though there are no hints of the contents of the jars. The interesting symbol is the one above the predator animal. This might be interpreted as a crown or an very early representation of the winged sun which, again, was to remain a standard part of Assyrian and Persian iconographic representations on the seals.

fig. 3: Assyrian winged sun.

Figure 4 is another Period V seal, again classed a protocuneiform. It shows a more detailed inscription of the animals which were presumably to be found in the area of Uruk in the period. It is believed to be administrative and the line drawing (fig. 5) shows the animals clearly:

fig. 4 cdli.ucla.edu VA 13630

fig. 5

The line drawing here clearly shows a mountain goat or an ibex from the horns. There is also a bull and what may be a monkey. The other animals are indistinct.

Many other of these early seals are to be found on the http://cdli.ucla.edu site. The pictures here are from Robert K. Engelund ATU 1994. The are allowed for fair non commercial use.


A further post on the later seals will be published in the coming weeks.



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