BMCR 2019.01.24

Seals and Sealing in the Ancient World: New Approaches to Glyptic Studies

, , , , Seals and Sealing in the Ancient World: New Approaches to Glyptic Studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xxix, 468. ISBN 9781107194588. £125.00​.

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles of this volume are listed at the end of the review.]

Seals and Sealing in the Ancient World is a wide-ranging compilation of studies reaching geographically from Iraq and Iran via Cyprus to the Aegean, and from the Indus Valley via the Gulf Region to Egypt. The time frame is equally vast, starting with the Late Uruk period in Mesopotamia and ending with comparisons to Early Archaic Greece, but mostly focusing on the third and second millennia BCE. The connecting element is the use of seals and their impressions in clay in “cylinder-seal cultures” (Mesopotamia, Iran) and “stamp seal cultures” (Aegean, Egypt, Anatolia, Oxus and Persian Gulf regions, Indus Valley) with their very distinct development of forms and materials (Joan Aruz, Preface). As the editors of the volume state in their introductory chapter, we can conceive of seals as “small windows” opening up “wide views” into societal and administrative practices on the one hand, and onto issues of social and individual identity on the other (p. 1). This can be achieved through different bodies of evidence, theories, and methods, and the value of the book lies in making this wide array of possibilities visible to us.

The volume is arranged into four geographic sections: Part I. The Ancient Near East and Cyprus; Part II. South Asia and the Gulf Region; Part III. Egypt; Part IV. Aegean. An introductory chapter written by a senior scholar opens each section, sketching the overall chronological development of seals and existing scholarship in the respective field. Four to five case studies follow, mostly written by postdoctoral or early career scholars.

As already observed by the editors, the evidence available strongly affects the types of analyses undertaken and the questions addressed. While the ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian textual and archaeological evidence allows for in-depth studies of artistic developments in well-defined administrative structures, scholars working on the Harappan and Aegean worlds have to focus on the seals themselves, using technological and typological observations to further their research. Despite these differences, the editors identify overarching themes (1. Visual communication; 2. Personal and social identity; 3. Regional and interregional interaction; 4. Production, use, and reuse) and successfully encourage cross-references between the individual studies and geographic sections. Traditional art-historical approaches to style and iconography are noticeably absent, while the seal and its image as “social agent” (Scott, p. 52) and transmitter of information take the centre stage.

The introductory chapters to the geographic sections differ in scope and orientation, and some case studies include their own, occasionally redundant overviews on general developments. For the ancient Near East and Cyprus (Part I), Holly Pittman starts off with a very brief sketch of the introduction and usage of seals in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Mesopotamia. She sees Fiandra and Ferioli’s seminal studies that combined archival studies on the fronts and backs of clay sealings as a turning point that allowed for new avenues of research into the dynamics and structures of economic and administrative systems in early Mesopotamia.1 According to Pittman, “ethnically” diverse actors involved in these procedures become visible through distinct seal motifs and styles. She expands this reasoning in a case study based on her previous research on the fascinating evidence from the site of Konar Sandal South (KSS) in the Kerman region of south central Iran during the third millennium. Unlike the internally closed administrative systems of Mesopotamian institutions that caused a common and rather homogenous “visual language”, the variety of styles and motifs attested in KSS is attributed to the physical presence of traders coming from distinct sealing communities in Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and various regions of the Iranian Plateau, making KSS a truly interregional marketplace.

The following contributions in this section lack the detail and depth achieved by Pittman’s study on recently discovered material. After a lengthy account on the evolution of tokens, cylinder seals, and script, Sarah Jarmer Scott interrogates the interplay among three kinds of administrative devices conveying different kinds of information: seal impressions (administrative context?), numerical notations (quantity), and ideograms (kind of commodity). She correlates a reduced spectrum of motifs with the introduction of numerical systems and ultimately proto-cuneiform signs during the Later Uruk period. The second part of her article contains the interesting observation that tablets with numerical notations were only sealed with seals depicting the priest king, offering bearers, or animal combats, while tablets with numerical impressions and ideographic signs usually bear impressions of animal files. According to Scott, images of prisoners and pigs occur only on container sealings and are accounted for in a similar manner in administrative documents, although it remains unclear what these observations mean. In this, and in several other contributions, there is surprisingly little acknowledgment and/or critical discussion of previous literature on similar topics.2

The title and abstract of the contribution by Andrew McCarthy promise more than the chapter has to offer about the relationship between gender and glyptics in third millennium northern Mesopotamia. Why seal-impressed cooking pots and storage containers from the Khabur region and a predominance of geometric designs suggest the involvement of women in the lower levels of a three-tiered bureaucratic system remains unclear to this reviewer. Despite its announced “lens of materiality”, Sarah Kielt Costello’s paper has more to say about the general importance of feasting in Early Dynastic elite culture and funerary ritual than about actual banquet seals.

More detailed is Yelena Rakic’s study of Akkadian seal imagery, which raises an important point about the correlation of stylistic changes with changes in administrative practice and political ideology. She observes that the introduction of bulla labels and tablets without text (only sealings) coincides with an increase of inscribed seals and classic Two-Pair contest scenes, in the wake of administrative control over large areas of land and a new role of visual media in propagating ideological aims. Joanna Smith is equally concerned with issues of authenticity and authority, but focuses on abrasions and recarvings detectable through close examination of a seal’s surface. The wide chronological and geographical scope of her paper, reaching from Bronze Age Cyprus and the Aegean, to the Old Assyrian colony period, and Achaemenid Persia, combined with her lengthy discussions about various aspects of regionally specific sealing practices, take away some cohesion and strength from her argument.

Asko Parpola opens the second section of the book with a brief but comprehensive overview about iconographic development and the history of research on seals from the Indus Valley (c. 3500–1300 BCE) and the Gulf Region (c. 2100–1600 BCE). The Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions (CISI) produced by Asko Parpola and collaborators since the 1980s forms the backbone for all future research, including the studies in the present volume. The studies compiled in this section focus on technological and typological issues, naturally so, since the Indus script remains undeciphered, few seal impressions survive, and meaningful archaeological contextualisation are lacking for most seals.

The only exception to this is Marta Ameri’s attempt to unravel the iconographic content of some mythological characters and narrative scenes found in particular on intentionally fired “moulded tablets” bearing seal impressions. Their “cast of characters” consists of horned and composite animals, and humans with distinctive features (e.g. headgear) depicted in situations clearly outside everyday life or experience, and often in interaction with (fantastic) animals. Since our access to Harappan religious beliefs and mythological stories is limited, she suggests we perceive the surviving images as “ fabulas ” and thus as basic components of multi-scene narratives following Mieke Bal’s seminal Narratology (1985). Despite this useful suggestion, her conclusions must remain tentative.

Gregg Jamison’s and Adam Green’s research interests are closely related and concern idiosyncrasies of Harrappan seal cutters and workshops. Both aim at a better understanding of the social organization underlying seal production in a diachronic perspective. While Jamison uses formal stylistic and metric analyses on unicorn seals to achieve this goal, Green engages in experimental archaeology, reproducing seals with a group of students to record the production process, identify operational sequences, and explain stylistic variation. How these observations will be used to reconstruct social relations among communities of seal carvers and seals users awaits further investigation.

Lastly, Stephen Laursen offers an interesting outlook into the afterlife of the Harappan stamp seal tradition in the Gulf Region. He presents a detailed account of typological and stylistic developments as well as a thorough discussion of sealing practices which he considers part of a wider administrative package introduced by Harappan traders to the Gulf Region (p. 217).

Josef Wegner’s comprehensive introduction to Part III (Egypt) is representative of contemporary seal studies in Egyptology, which no longer seem to focus on typology and iconography of scarabs, but on the active function of cylinders and stamps both to seal doors and containers, and to serve as multi-layered markers of institutional and individual identities in evolving social and administrative systems over more than three millennia. The chapter includes a case study on thousands of sealings deposited by the Middle Kingdom community of Wah-Sut, which illustrates the research potential but also the complexities that lie in large-scale analyses of partially inscribed seal corpora derived from various depositional contexts. Some of the sealings must have been used in posthumous commemoration of deceased members of the community; others offer clues to the involvement of women in administrative practice.

Ilona Regulski, John Nolan, and Stuart Tyson Smith pick up these directions of research and offer detailed and well-illustrated case-studies on archival sealing evidence from the Early Dynastic, Middle and New Kingdoms respectively. Daphne Ben-Tor continues to argue for a primary amuletic and funerary function of Egyptian scarabs but accepts suggestions for interchangeable usage as seals and amulets during the late Middle Kingdom.

What the CISI is for the Indus Valley, the Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel (CMS) is for the Aegean: an enormous recording and classification project facilitating all future research and providing excellent visual documentation. Judith Weingarten introduces Part IV with a very short description of the state of research on Aegean glyptic, which traditionally puts a lot of emphasis on iconography and symbolic significance. Papers on multivalencies of meaning (Erin McGowan) and receptions of earlier images in much later seal reproductions (Maria Anastasiadou) trace relations among images across time and space, while John Younger and Angela Murock Hussein are more interested in investigating the seal stones’ societal function beyond their aesthetic value.

A final note concerns illustrations, which are crucial for such a volume. While some contributions include excellent drawings (e.g. Pittman, Laursen), others use illustrations from various sources in varying quality and diverging sizes, often too small to make out details. Several images are illustrated more than once (e.g. in the contribution of Ameri) and again on the colour plates, which depict mostly well-known objects and unfortunately leave two thirds of a page empty. While the regional map of Egypt seems oversized, the map of the Aegean is printed at such a small scale that it is almost impossible to decipher.

Despite its shortcomings, the present volume serves as a valuable introduction to current avenues of inquiry into Bronze Age seals and the sealing practices of the ancient world.

Table of Contents

Preface (Joan Aruz), pp. xxv-xxix
1 – Introduction: Small Windows, Wide Views (Marta Ameri, Sarah Kielt Costello, Gregg M. Jamison, Sarah Jarmer Scott), pp. 1-10

Part I – The Ancient Near East and Cyprus
2 – Administrative Role of Seal Imagery in the Early Bronze Age: Mesopotamian and Iranian Traders on the Plateau (Holly Pittman), pp. 13-35
3 – Slave Labor: Uruk Cylinder-Seal Imagery and Early Writing (Sarah Jarmer Scott), pp. 36-53
4 – The First Female Bureaucrats: Gender and Glyptic in Third-Millennium Northern Mesopotamia (Andrew McCarthy), pp. 54-67
5 – Rematerializing the Early Dynastic Banquet Seal (Sarah Kielt Costello), pp. 68-80
6 – Sealing Practices in the Akkadian Period (Yelena Z. Rakic), pp. 81-94
7 – Authenticity, Seal Recarving, and Authority in the Ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean (Joanna S. Smith), pp. 95-124

Part II – South Asia and the Gulf Region
8 – Indus Seals and Glyptic Studies: An Overview (Asko Parpola), pp. 127-143
9 – Letting the Pictures Speak: An Image-Based Approach to the Mythological and Narrative Imagery of the Harappan World (Marta Ameri), pp. 144-166
10 – Understanding Indus Seal-Carving Traditions: A Stylistic and Metric Approach (Gregg M. Jamison), pp. 167-186
11 – Operational Sequences and Stamp Seals: A Preliminary Report on an Experimental and Microtopographic Framework for Identifying Groups of Seal Carvers in the Indus Civilization (Adam S. Green), pp. 187-203
12 – Seals and Sealing Technology in the Dilmun Culture: The Post-Harappan Life of the Indus Valley Sealing Tradition (Steffen Terp Laursen), pp. 204-226

Part III – Egypt
13 – The Evolution of Ancient Egyptian Seals and Sealing Systems (Josef Wegner), pp. 229-257
14 – Early Dynastic Sealing Practices as a Reflection of State Formation in Egypt (Ilona Regulski), pp. 258-270
15 – Sealings and Seals from Pyramid Age Egypt (John Nolan), pp. 271-288
16 – The Administrative Use of Scarabs during the Middle Kingdom (Daphna Ben-Tor), pp. 289-301
17 – Middle and New Kingdom Sealing Practice in Egypt and Nubia: A Comparison (Stuart Tyson Smith), pp. 302-324

Part IV – Aegean
18 – Introductory Remarks, Aegean (Judith Weingarten), pp. 327-333
19 – Aegean Bronze Age Seal Stones and Finger Rings: Chronology and Functions (John G. Younger), pp. 334-354
20 – An Aegean Seal in Greek Hands? Thoughts on the Perception of Aegean Seals in the Iron Age (Maria Anastasiadou), pp. 355-367
21 – Cryptic Glyptic: Multivalency in Minoan Glyptic Imagery (Erin McGowan), pp. 368-386
22 – The Magic and the Mundane: The Function of “Talismanic-Class” Stones in Minoan Crete (Angela Murock Hussein), pp. 387-400


1. See P. Ferioli and E. Fiandra (1979), “The administrative functions of clay sealings in protohistoric Iran”, in: Gnoli, G. and Rossi, A.V. (eds.), Iranica, Neapel, pp. 307–312, as well as many later publications by these authors.

2. For instance R. Dittmann (2013), “Glyptic and patterns of urbanization. A humble approach”, in Kämmerer, T.R. and Rogge, S. (eds.), Patterns of Urban Societies, Münster, pp. 35–138; or D. Schmandt-Besserat (2007), When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story, Austin. ​