BMCR 2020.05.33

Seals, sealings and seal impressions from Akrotiri in Thera

, Seals, sealings and seal impressions from Akrotiri in Thera. Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel. Beiheft, 10. Heidelberg: CMS Heidelberg, 2018. xiv, 402 p.. ISBN 9783000608322 €116,00.

Freely available (Open Access) at Propylaeum and FWF-E-Book-Library

In the old days, glyptic scholars devoted themselves to questions of style and iconography, identifying ‘Workshops’ or even quixotic ‘Hands’. Then came Enrica Fiandra’s groundbreaking study of seal use at Middle Minoan II Phaistos (1968): instead of examining just the imagery on the obverse, she studied the reverses of sealings in order to understand the systems of administrative control that could be extrapolated from the imprints of containers and doors left in the clay.[1] Later, with her partner Piera Ferioli, she expanded such functional analyses to sites in the Near East and Anatolia. Since then, the artistic focus has been gradually displaced as attention shifted to questions of how seals were used, what sealing practices meant for ancient bureaucracy, and what this might reflect of seal-using societies. Sealings and Seal Impressions from Akrotiri in Thera is a huge new contribution to this field, a critical edition (one might say) of sphragistic studies as they pertain to the Aegean.

The volume is divided into two parts. Part I presents all the glyptic material from the site, followed by a lengthy ‘Concluding Remarks’; Part II has fully illustrated catalogues of the Seals (S1–S16), Nodules (N1–N75), and Objects with Seal Impressions (I1–I3), a bibliography (updated to 2016), Concordances, and Index.

The first three chapters describe the contextual archaeological data for the finds, their typology, function, and iconography, each concluding with a short commentary on the material covered. Karnava cautions (p. 8) that contexts in the latest pre-eruption phase can be deceptive because repairs after the earthquake caused house furnishings to be moved from damaged to undamaged rooms and even outside of buildings: “Thus, secondary context can be mistaken for primary ones”. Chapter 4 gives an historical overview of sealing studies in the Aegean, placing the new Akrotiri sealings firmly within the context of Minoan Neopalatial administrative practices. Her conclusions (pp. 215–238) survey similar modes of sealing in the eastern Mediterranean and even further afield in time and place (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. A leather document from Bactria, early 4th century BCE
Fig. 1. A leather document from Bactria, early 4th century BCE, found closed under its sealing (right) and opened for photography: ‘addressed to a superior officer, it announces the dispatch of 40 sheep’: Naveh – Shaked 2012, 187–91 no. C2 (Karnava 2018, Fig. 122, p. 234 & n. 1050; photograph courtesy CMS Archive).

The 16 seals discussed in Chapter 1 are unimpressive in quantity and quality: a mere 16 seals is not much from 40 years of excavation on a site with such abundant archaeological finds! (pp. 72-73). There is little evidence for a Theran glyptic tradition: only four seals are judged to be local. Among the imports, three are of hard stone, of which one, S12, depicting an eccentric griffin, was assigned (Betts 1981, 13) to the early Late Minoan group of the Jasper Lion Master, thought to have been working at Knossos—an interesting pointer to the source of Akrotiri’s glyptic.

The find contexts of the Nodules, N1-75, are thoroughly described in Chapter 2. The main hoard of 73 nodules comes from Building Delta-East—part of which had been swept away by a modern torrent—in Room 18b, perhaps intentionally left relatively empty to facilitate movement. All but three of the nodules are flat-based sealings of known Minoan type, where the clay was pressed against now-vanished leather/parchment documents (Weingarten 1981, 1983a; Pini 1983). The clay was visibly not local.[2] Thus, most sealings indirectly testify to messages written and sealed on Crete and sent to Akrotiri. In the contiguous Room 18a, a single direct object sealing, N74, was found in proximity to Linear A tablets and numerous other finds. Elsewhere, in an open area, N75, one nodulus,[3] was recovered inside a wooden box together with a balance set.

Chapter 2 gives a detailed physical analysis of Minoan sealing types, with particular emphasis on flat-based ‘document’ sealings (pp. 102–107), by far the most common type at Akrotiri: the 62 flat-based nodules were stamped by 16 different seals (10 nodules each by a single seal; 52 by two different seals [Fig. 2]). In all, 19 individual metal rings and stone seals—almost all with contemporary figurative motifs and some of superb craftsmanship—had sent sealed material from Crete to Akrotiri (Fig. 2). Athough Karnava disclaims “a detailed commentary on every aspect of the iconography” (pp. 116-117), she nonetheless presents extensive discussions of each seal motif and its place within the Minoan repertory.

Discussion of the monumental (ca. 3.0 x 1.85 cm) gold ring impression depicting a Chariot Scene (CMS V.S 391) leads inevitably to the vexed problem of ‘Replica Rings’. In 1967, John Betts revived Arthur Evans’ idea of the use of replica rings on Crete, as witnessed by the finely-engraved large metal rings that appeared in Late Minoan I, many depicting bull-leaping scenes. He proved that two such monumental rings had left sealings on widely-separated Late Minoan IB sites: the Chariot Scene at Sklavokampo and Ayia Triada (and now Late Cycladic IA Thera);[4] and a superb bull-leaping ring at Sklavokampo, Ayia Triada, Gournia (and, since confirmed, Zakro).[5] This indicated “a centralised bureaucracy at Knossos, of Knossian rulers using signet-rings of the finest quality with bull-leaping as their chief insignia…. Very exact replicas of these rings … would be for use by the rulers’ representatives at other places within their dominion” (p. 27). Since which time, glyptic scholars have been arguing both about the interplay of seals and sealings and the meaning of the ‘replica’ rings.

Karnava is adamant: although all the bull-leaping ring impressions found at Akrotiri are thematically close, “under no circumstances can or should they be grouped together” (193–194; pace Betts 1967; pace Weingarten 2010); that is, they are not ‘replica rings’.[6] Yet they would certainly have been recognized as badges of Knossian authority everywhere on the island. Karnava reasonably assumes that all are administrative seals (by extension, the stone-seals as well): “Behind each seal impression we will, therefore, postulate a seal bearer in an official capacity as administrator”, though she remains uncertain if this marks a personal guarantee or an impersonal bureaucratic rank (pp. 197–199). But all we really know is that Minoan seal-users are sending short authenticated messages to the island (Fig. 1). Comparing archives found in private houses at Late Bronze Age III Ugarit/Ras Shamra, Karnava stresses that, although stored in private property, the house-owners “were also always connected with state bureaucracy” (p. 224, n. 1006; citing Soldt 2000). There is no doubt, however, that many state officials used their public positions to further their own private businesses—a time-honoured practice of privileged elites—as proved by a fair selection of their documents.[7] So, who are our Minoan seal-owners and users?

Karnava proposes a professional hierarchy of ‘First Rank’/‘Dominant’ vs ‘Second Rank’/ ‘Subordinate’ Administrators (pp. 203–208): “In a well-organized and strictly repetitive administrative system … we have to assume that each administrator had specific and fixed duties, which would be repeatedly reflected in stamping patterns” (p. 208). Given that 52 of the flat-based sealings were stamped by two different seals (Fig. 2) and 10 by a single seal, Karnava ranks them in a novel way: “an administrator qualifies as ‘first rank’ if (s)he can stamp both [my emphasis] single-handedly and in collaboration with those administrators defined as ‘second rank’ or ‘subordinate’”. Given that we have no way of knowing if the messages all dealt with the same topics, this seems less than self-evident. And, indeed, applied to Late Minoan IB deposits on Crete, it leads to questionable conclusions.

At Ayia Triada, she identifies four ‘Dominant’ seals, the only seals that are stamped both alone and in pairs. But over 98% of Ayia Triada sealings were stamped with just a single impression; that is, the pairs are the odd-men-out, many having demonstrable links to Knossos and even Zakro—sites where multiple stamping was the norm (Weingarten 2010, 402–406); thus, they tell us nothing about administrative hierarchy at Ayia Triada, where the overwhelming majority of nodules were stamped by a single seal, with 70% working in one of two exclusive administrative sectors marked by different Linear A signs (Weingarten 1987). Karnava’s ranking system would not identify the local ‘sealing leader’, CMS II.6 11 as ‘Dominant’, yet his cult ring stamped ca. 25% of all sealings, and he alone bridged the two administrative sectors. In short, the local dynamics are lost.

At Zakro, as earlier in the Temple Repositories at Knossos, most seals worked within a Multiple Sealing System (Weingarten 1992). Hence, the Zakro “sealing leader” was a pair of rings stamping together, and to make it more complicated, the two rings were, in fact, four rings, each in two ‘look-alike’ versions: two very similar cult rings (CMS II.7 16/17) and two near-identical bull-leaping rings (CMS II.7 37/38). Then, in a pattern reminiscent of Akrotiri (Fig. 2), CMS II.7 37 once breaks loose, not to stamp alone but to join another pair of stone seals (CMS II.7 127 + 177)—which never again appear in our records (Weingarten 1983b). Since none of the leaders’ rings ever stamp alone, none can be identified as Dominant. Yet, not only are they the most active seal-users at Zakro but the bull-leapers are unquestionably Knossian ‘replica’ rings—whether the nodules were stamped locally or not.

Fig. 2. Seal impressions on flat-based nodules at Akrotiri
Fig. 2. Seal impressions on flat-based nodules at Akrotiri, to scale (Karnava 2018, Fig. 111; photograph courtesy CMS Archive).

In truth, the Dominant/Subordinate system tells us little about what is happening at Zakro. Some proposals feel counterintuitive.[8] For example: two of a triplet of ‘look-alike’ seals with a squatting female Minotaur (only distinguished under the electron microscope), CMS II.7 109A and 109B, are each paired with an unusual image of a fat pig, CMS II.7 115. Then, a close ‘look-alike’ of the pig, CMS II.7 116, pairs with the third of the triplets, CMS II.7 110—which once also appears alone. Accordingly, Karnava elevates CMS II.7 110 to be ‘Dominant’, a seal of the first rank. Yet, any Bronze Age viewer would have been hard put to distinguish this seal from its ‘look-alike’ sisters. Obviously, there remains ample room for argument.

Without doubt, Karnava has opened the subject for renewed debate about how the system, or systems, were organized and what this means for the political, economic and social structures of the time. And surely, as she intends, this monograph will be the starting point for all future research.


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Betts, J.H. 1967. “New light on Minoan bureaucracy.” Kadmos 6, 15–40.
— . 1981. “The Jasper Lion Master”. In W.-D. Niemeier (ed.) Studien zur minoischen und helladischen Glyptik. Berlin, 1–15.
Del Olmo Lete, G. 2018. The private archives of Ugarit. Barcelona.
Dionisio, G., A. M. Jasink, and J. Weingarten. 2014. Minoan Cushion Seals. Rome.
Fiandra, E. 1968. “A che cosa servivano le cretule di Festos.” In Proceedings of the Second International Cretological Congress. Athens, 383–397.
Goren, Y., and D. Panagiotopoulos. 2007. “The Lords of the Rings. An Analytical Approach to the Riddle of the ‘Knossian Replica Rings’”, Minoan Seminar, Athens, 23 March 2007.
Moore, K., and D.C. Lewis. 2009. The Origins of Globalization. Routledge.
Panagiotopoulos, D., and Y. Goren. 2008. “Die Herren der Ringe: Was gesiegelte Tonplomben über das Herrschaftssystem des minoischen Kreta verraten”. Ruberto Carola 3/08, 26–31 ( Universität Heidelberg presse).
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Van Soldt, W. H. 2000. “Private archives at Ugarit”. In A.C.V.M. Bongenaar (ed.), Interdependency of Institutions and Private Entrepreneurs. Leiden, 229–245.
Weingarten, J. 1981. “Chapter IV: The Sealing Imprints”, The Zakro Master and His Place in Prehistory. M. Litt. diss., Oxford University.
— . 1983a. “The use of the Zakro sealings”. Kadmos 22: 8–13.
— . 1983b. The Zakro Master and His Place in Prehistory, Göteborg.
—. 1986. “Some unusual Minoan clay nodules”. Kadmos 25, 1–21.
— . 1990. “Hieroglyphic Seals and Sealings in Late Minoan I (or later) Contexts: Appendix D.” In A.-M. Jasink, Cretan Hieroglyphic Seals. Pisa-Rome, 209–217.
— . 2010. “Corridors of Power: A Social Network Analysis of the Minoan ‘Replica Rings’”. In W. Müller (ed.), Die Bedeutung der minoischen und mykenischen Glyptik. Mainz, 395–412.


[1] This review is dedicated to Enrica Fiandra who died on 11 February 2020, as I was writing it.

[2] “Contrary to earlier reports, the petrographic clay analysis sampled only a limited number of sealings from Akrotiri (less than 20)” (p. 196 & n. 912: clarifying Goren and Panagiotopoulos 2007, that the clay of (all but one) of the sealings, “according to preliminary analyses, has been traced to north central Crete” [cited by Weingarten 2010, 398]. Hence, the scientific evidence does not yet, by itself, argue for the overlordship of Knossos on Crete (pace Panagiotopoulos and Goren).

[3] Noduli (sing. nodulus) are clay nodules without string holes or any means of attachment to objects; they never could have sealed anything, and are therefore interpreted as dockets or tokens: Weingarten 1986.

[4] “The fact that the very same [Charioteer] ring had stamped sealings at different sites and with a certain chronological gap has no precedent in existing evidence from the Aegean Bronze Age” (p. 82). While true of the LM IA–LM IB gap, three other metal rings that left sealings in LM IB deposits reappear at LM IIIA Knossos (Weingarten 2010, 408–410).

[5] Another bull-leaping ring was later identified as having stamped sealings at Ayia Triada (CMS II.6 44), Gournia (CMS II.6 162), and Sklavokampo (CMS II.6 255)

[6] Karnava is not a fan of the “so-called replica rings”: e.g. “the term is confusing and has been used with a variety of meanings, which do not always coincide” (pp. 186–187). A more positive view can be found in Weingarten 2010, with a working definition (p. 396, n. 3). In any case, ‘replica’ rings are not reproductions, nor meant to be, but do share a prototype, which is replicated as a token of authority.

[7] On the intermingling of royal and family archives in private homes, see now Del Olmo Lete 2018; e.g., the archives of the supervisor of the harbour, Rašap.abu, held official records alongside those of economic private transactions (patrimonial distribution and adoption, land acquisition, last will, slave emancipation, general records of debts) (pp. 83-85). Great merchants of Ugarit, exemplified by Abdihaqab and Sinaranu, while closely connected with the palace and trading on its behalf, also conducted their own commercial enterprises to great profit (Moore and Lewis 2009, 91–95).

[8] It’s complicated: CMS II.7 99 and 215, each promoted separately to Dominant, are probably two sides of the same cushion seal and may be considered “functional look-alikes”–good evidence for the tortuous Multiple Sealing System at Zakro, but not at all, in my opinion, for their personal rank (Weingarten 1990, 211–213; Dionisio, Jasink, and Weingarten 2014, S-31, S-32).