Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.03.27

Elspeth R. M. Dusinberre, Gordion Seals and Sealings: Individuals and Society. Gordion Special Studies III, University Museum Monograph 124.   Philadelphia, PA:  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2005.  Pp. 208; ills. 237 (CD-Rom).  ISBN 1-9311707-82-0.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Summers, MiddleEast Technical University, Ankara (
Word count: 2210 words

The first thing to say about this latest addition to the series of Gordion Special Studies edited by G. Kenneth Sams is that anyone expecting to find a study of seals at the Phrygian capital of Gordion from the time of King Midas will, like the author herself (pp. 21-22), be hugely disappointed. Secondly, preparing this work has obviously been a labor of love, and Dusinberre (hereafter D) is to be thanked for her effort and devotion over some eight years. Thirdly, in an attempt to move beyond a mere catalogue of seals and seal impressions, D has discussed the function of many of the seals and tried to discern what the seal might tell us about its purpose, the way in which it was used, its owner and the significance of its being found at Gordion. However, with the exception of a very small number from graves, none of the seals or sealings was found in a primary context, i.e. in the place where the seals were used or the sealings broken, or from workshops where seals were made. Further, the material, which totals 114 catalogue entries, ranges in date from the Early Bronze Age to the Late Roman, according to the index from c.3000 BCE. to c.500 CE. Many of the later pieces are more commonly termed gem stones and finger rings rather than seals. One result of this paucity of evidence is that D has not been able to present a comprehensive discussion of the practice of sealing at Gordion for any period. Thus the nature of the evidence has restricted D's interpretations of "individuals and society" to discussion of individual seals, and she has sometimes had to squeeze a rather dry lemon very hard indeed.

In a brief Preface D reduces the chronological span to c.1800 BCE to c.400 CE and summarizes the range and variety of the material followed by a brief discussion of reasons for studying seals.

The first chapter, "The Site of Gordion" (pp.1-18), provides a short, succinct, overview of the excavations and periods. D gushes: "The situation of the site is glorious. It has the clear sparkle of an interior highland, close to the heavens and characterized by vast reaches of sky and dark distant hills that sometimes seem close enough to touch." Maybe, but as I write (Feb. 13) the site is covered by half a meter of snow -- something D's source for climatic data, the Ankara Business Centre's 2004 booklet, fails to mention. The value of such brief and sweeping surveys might be questioned, particularly when they are not wholly accurate; D surely knows that the relief at Karabel was carved by the Kings of Mira and not by the Hittites.

The overview of stratigraphy and chronology of the Iron Age at Gordion takes into account the new (and in this reviewer's opinion) highly plausible redating of the Destruction Level at Gordion. The destruction is now thought to have occurred around 800 BCE rather than 700, one result of this new assessment being that the destruction is no longer associated with either a Cimmerian invasion or with the death of King Midas. While this redating and its archaeological implications are enormously important for the Iron Age of Anatolia and beyond, they are of little consequence for the study under review since there are so few seals or sealings from either the Early Phrygian Period, c.950-800 BCE, or from the first century of the Middle Phrygian Period, c.800-540 BCE. Of those few examples that do date to the Phrygian Kingdom, none -- including those from the South Cellar -- can truly be said to come from "very good context" (p.23).

The second chapter, "The Seals of Gordion", opens with a section defining seals. It seems correct to say that seals are for sealing, which implies closing or shutting. One might quibble with lumping together with seals such items as pottery sherds with stamped decoration and bread stamps (if bread stamps they really were) simply because they were stamped. While it might indeed be useful to have a corpus of Phrygian pottery stamps from Gordion, and perhaps justifiable to include them in a volume on seals and sealings, what we are offered here is an arbitrary selection of those few stamped impressions on pottery that were (erroneously) registered as seal impressions at the time of excavation, and not a complete corpus of decorative pottery stamp impressions from Gordion.

Page 20 has a summary of the catalogue which in essence contains:

Bronze Age, 3000-1100, 7 seals and 7 impressions

Early Iron Age, 1100-950, 1 seal

Early Phrygian, 950-800, 1 seal, 1 stamped sherd, 1 possible seal

Middle Phrygian, 800-540 (i.e. from the Destruction Level to the Persian conquest), 12 seals, 1 impression, 1 possible seal

Late Phrygian, 540-330 (i.e. Persian Empire), 22 seals, 7 impressions, 1 non-seal

Hellenistic, 11 seals, 9 rings, 11 impressions, 2 possibles

Roman, 16 rings, 1 stamp

Also 1 seal and 1 possible seal are undated.

Thus for the period of the Phrygian Kingdom, which perhaps lasted some three hundred years from c. 900 to 600 BCE, we have a maximum of 12 seals with no evidence that they were ever used for sealing anything at Gordion.

It must already be clear that the Phrygians at Gordion do not seem to have used seals in the same ways or with the same frequency that seals were commonly used in the ancient Near East. D. could have usefully expanded on this important topic and its implications. It is noteworthy that only a couple of seals, apparently used as amulets and from late in the Middle Phrygian Period, are reported from any of the Gordion Tumuli, although there are neat patches of wax with inscriptions on a few bronze vessels. This virtual absence of evidence for Phrygian production and use of seals can be replicated at other excavated Phrygian and Phrygian related sites, notably Midas City, Kaman Kalehöyük, Bogazköy, and Kerkenes, and would also seem to hold true for Göllü Da as well as for the later Iron Age levels at Alis,ar. Nor, as far as I know, were any seals or impressions recovered from the excavations of Phrygian Tumuli at Ankara.

There then follows an overview of the seals, impressions and other material according to the periods just listed. It might have been tidier to have integrated these summaries with the overview of the archaeology for each period at Gordion provided in Chapter 1, although this dual arrangement has permitted both sets of overviews to incorporate the most recent evidence from the ongoing multi-stranded research at the Phrygian capital.

On pages 29-31 the reader is provided with a clear description of the catalogue conventions, including the numbering system, which is chronological by period with seals before sealings. There is nothing wrong with this system in itself, although it does not allow for insertions of new discoveries in the appropriate position. D has seen in person 107 of the 117 items.

Chapter 3, Catalogue of Seals, is the section of this book that will be most used and will be of lasting value because it contains the definitive description of each piece. Each entry begins with the Gordion register number and the figure numbers of the line drawings in the book and the photographs on the CD-ROM. Dimensions are given and materials described from visual observation, no material analysis having been carried out. There are excellent descriptions. Less useful are the archaeological contexts, partially because so little of excavated record is available in published form but also because so few of the pieces are really from good contexts. D's claim that many pieces come from what she terms "use contexts" is somewhat misleading since she appears to mean by this only that they were not from burials. Reference to the field book is provided. There is then a detailed discussion of the piece together with comparanda and references. It has to be said that, more than once, D stretches interpretation to extremes. For instance, in discussing no. 19, a "Lyre player" type from North Syria dated to about 740-720 BCE, she concludes that "If the Assyrians were practicing wholesale destruction and deportation of cities and peoples in North Syria in the 8th century, it might help to explain the quantity of Syrian seals at Gordion". Finally, references to earlier publications are given at the end of each entry. Nobody could want for more.

I noticed very few textual errors, "Early Iron Age, but before 700 BCE" in the last line of the entries for nos. 24 and 25 being exceptional slips.

Seals, and their impressions, are very visual objects and thus their illustration is very important. Each seal is shown by clear and uncluttered line drawings. These have evidently been done by D herself, but which of them were made anew from the objects themselves and which from earlier drawings or photographs is not usually stated. The publishers must be held responsible for the complete mess that has been made over the reproduction of the line drawings. One can only assume that neither D herself nor the Series Editor was shown copies of these illustrations at proof stage. In the great majority of cases profiles and sections of each seal are depicted at actual size. One assumes that the intention was to present the seal face, or the impression, at the usual scale of 2:1 (i.e. twice actual size). But what has happened is that each drawing has been expanded to "fit to page", with the excruciating result that pieces are shown at a great variety of bastard scales. A few examples will suffice; on Fig. 15 the 1cm scale measures 4.5cm, on Fig. 33 it is 7.4 cm whilst on Fig. 52 it is a whopping 12 cm. The result of this twelve-fold increase in size is to make the fine original drawing of what must be an exquisite little seal appear like something from a rather charming children's coloring book.

I have not checked the size of each piece in the illustrations against the dimensions given in the catalogue. It is however clear that the decision to give all dimensions of these small objects in "divisions of meters" rather than, as might have been more appropriate for such small-scale items, millimeters, has necessitated the use of many zeros and decimal points.

I was going to include comment on the policy of producing the photographic illustrations of archaeological material on CD-ROM rather than the printed page. I have not done so, partly because this issue has been addressed by others in recent Bryn Mawr Reviews and partly because the quality of many of the images offered here is such that the additional cost of hard copy would not be easy to justify. I assume, perhaps mistakenly, that D's original intention was to include black and white photographs of each piece alongside the line drawings at (approximately) the same scale. Anyway, all photographs are in black and white. This is a pity. The Guidebook to the Gordion Museum (n.d. but c. 2001 and still in print) contains six excellent color photographs of seals on pp. 75 and 76. Surely these and other more recent photographs of equal quality could have been included. So far as I can make out only one item, cat. no. 33, has been specially (and extremely well) photographed for this volume. Given the final nature of this publication, it would not be too much to expect that the more accessible pieces, which D was able to examine at first hand, would have been re-photographed.

In conclusion, what we have here is the final publication, in a series of special studies, of a rather mixed bag of material which, although from excavated contexts at one of the key Iron Age capitals straddling the Classical and ancient Near Eastern worlds, tells us little that is related to the Kingdom of Phrygia. While the volume is not exorbitantly priced, it is a specialist publication and not therefore inexpensive. Few individuals will wish to own a copy, although it will be an essential acquisition for specialist libraries. The portion of this work to hold its value will be the catalogue. Even here, the large portions of text dealing with archaeological context will presumably become outdated and eventually superceded as final excavation reports appear. Little in Chapter 1 adds to another equally new Gordion volume from the same stable, The Archaeology of Midas and the Phrygians, edited by Lisa Kealhofer. Because of their particular characteristics ancient seals are, as this volume demonstrates, broadly datable on stylistic grounds, regardless of their findspot. D has set a high standard in her detailed descriptions and discussion of comparanda, and she has struggled valiantly to give this rather lean material meaning in terms of individuals and(?) societies from the distant past. Since this book is one in a series of Gordion Special Studies it would, to the mind of this reviewer, have been better and more useful to have restricted the content of this volume to little more than the catalogue itself, thereby making the book shorter, and to have expended more care on the reproduction of the illustrations. These measures would have made the entire book, not just one part of it, of long-term worth.

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