Object Image

Cylinder seal with monster

Although engraved stones had been used as early as the seventh millennium B.C. to stamp impressions in clay, the invention in the fourth millennium B.C. of carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay allowed the development of more complex seal designs. These cylinder seals, first used in Mesopotamia, served as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on lumps of clay that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions. The seals were often made of precious stones. Protective properties may have been ascribed to both the material itself and the carved designs. Seals are important to the study of ancient Near Eastern art because many examples survive from every period and can, therefore, help to define chronological phases. Often preserving imagery no longer extant in any other medium, they serve as a visual chronicle of style and iconography.

The modern impression of the seal is shown so that the entire design can be seen. This seal shows a rampant animal facing towards a tree with flaring branches and perhaps hanging date clusters. Above the animal's head is a cross, and behind it are a crouching animal (above) and a bird (below).

In three weeks of excavation at Surkh Dum, Erich Schmidt and the Holmes Expedition to Luristan uncovered a circular mud-brick structure with a platform in the center, perhaps a sanctuary or shrine. The building contained a wealth of objects of bronze, ivory, bone, faience, and ceramic, as well as about two hundred cylinder and stamp seals, most dating from the ninth to the eighth century B.C. Some of the objects, however, were heirlooms of considerably earlier date. In spite of its brevity, the excavation at Surkh Dum is important for having uncovered objects from a settlement site rather than from one of the cemeteries more commonly found in Luristan.

Credit: Rogers Fund, 1943

c. 11th-9th century B.C.
Bitumen matrix with white mineral aggregate
4.0cm
43.102.38
Image and text © Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019

Where you'll find this

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Permanent collection