Seals and Sealing in the Ancient World

Case Studies from the Near East, Egypt, the Aegean, and South Asia

Finally, the book we have long – decades, in fact – been waiting for, a comprehensive view of seals and sealings in the ancient world, from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley. This has been essential because, as the authors argue from the very start, seals were social objects, meant to convey meaning, be useful as economic tokens, symbolize human relationships to other people. These other people, in other cultures or in different groups within the same culture, were those with whom the seal owner was trading or representing themselves. Seals and sealings were, with respect to their times, global objects. Having a much broader overview than their role in one civilization is therefore essential – and given that sealings struck from seals traveled huge distances and were meant to be understood at their destinations, they influenced each other across cultures in manifold ways. In the wonderfully titled introduction, Small Windows, Wide Views the authors argue that "seals and sealings are artifacts of social media. Building social relationships and maintaining an identity within communities was essential for economic success in antiquity, as it is now, and the imagery on seals, as well as the seals themselves, were powerful tools within this endeavour." (p. 10)

To be sure, Seals and Sealings in the Ancient World would have been harder to put together previously, there are so many new discoveries and analyses to incorporate, not only from the ancient Indus Valley, but from the nearby Hallil Rud Valley in Iran with whom Indus traders were in close contact. In fact, from Mesopotamia and Egypt, Syria and Anatolia, and the whole Aegean region new points of investigation and evidence have surfaced in recent years which this volume so skillfully incorporates. Over 20 authors have contributed, including key scholars like Holly PIttman (Mesopotamia), Judith Weingarten (east Mediterranean/Egypt), and Asko Parpola (Indus), as well as new young scholars like Gregg Jamison and Marti Ameri (Indus, both are editors of the volume) whose analytical approach across a number of disciplines is leading to new discoveries and approaches. This makes for a rich read. One comes away with a heightened sense of how complex seals and the sealings were, how much significance they could carry. New work in some regions that establishes the type of object a sealing was imprinted upon or attached to and which helps distinguish different types of uses is very exciting. So is the extremely close analysis of how Indus seals were cut to establish workshop and even individual carving patterns.

The book itself is divided into four major parts following a nice overview by another important scholar, Joan Aruz at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first section is on the ancient Near East and Cyprus regions which includes ancient Uruk and Akkadian seals in Mesopotamia about which (with ancient Egyptian seals) we arguably know the most and can "read" the best. Essays break down the role of "banquet seals," and even the gendering of seals which shows how, in some Mesopotamian civilizations, women played an important economic and political role as distinguished in traces on the seal record.

One of the most interesting points in this section is the discussion of the Akkadian word kunukku, "which can mean cylinder seal, seal impression, or a sealed clay tablet. It is also the same word for vertebrae that form the core of the human skeleton. The sound of the end of kunukku is similar to the word for (stamp) seal ring, unqu (uqqu)" (Roth 2010: 167-71). The sounds of the beginning of kunukku as well as a verb meaning to seal kanaku (Oppenheim 1971: 136-42), also reference the terms , and , which refer to stability, legitimacy or establishment (Oppenheim 1971: 159-71, 540, 543). A longevity of authority seems thus to be an integral part of the structure and meaning of kunukku; the cylinder seal has within it what William Hallo described as continuous or durable power (Hallo, 1983:14)" (p. 101). One can see how deeply seals were interwoven with the fabric of civilization.

The section includes a discussion of seals in the more recently discovered Halil Rud civilization in Iran about which Holly Pitman writes "on the Iranian Plateau in the Early Bronze [Age], in an environment where writing, if it existed at all, was not used administratively, seals played a vital role in differentiating the various actors who came to central places or markets to acquire, disperse, or exchange raw or semi-processed materials and certainly also finished goods of the types found in the Royal Tombs" (p. 34).

This section is followed by five essays on the ancient Indus and Gulf regions, and starts with a concise summary by Asko Parpola of what we know about seals and their discovery. He makes the important point that "In the beginning there were seals," for it was seals that actually led to excavations at Harappa and have remained integral to all that we know or surmise about the ancient Indus civilization. Marta Ameri follows with an essay on "Letting the Pictures Speak," which tries to find unifying narrative underlying some of the richest Indus seals like that of a tiger looking back at a human figure in an acacia tree, or a seal with a human figure battling a tiger, or the great narrative deity seal from Mohenjo-daro. She is cognizant of course that the textual evidence underlying these stories is missing, but clearly there were complex common "fabulas" that underlay the imagery which "could also serve as a unifying force in large areas that may have been populated by a number of different ethnic groups" (p. 165). She notes, as others have, that like in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Indus mythological imagery is also found "on seals, tablets, or other mold-made elements" that point to "increased elite control of religious imagery" (p. 165) in a form that could generate multiple copies.

Greg M. Jamison's essay is an in-depth analysis of how Indus seals were carved (along the lines of his essay The Organization of Indus Unicorn Seal Production. A Multi-faceted Investigation of Technology, Skill, and Style that shows how extremely careful analysis of the steps used to manufacture" in an attempt to fingerprint groups of seals that may represent distinct workshops" (p. 185). Further exploration of regional variation is warranted; what is clear is that this kind of micro-analysis can eventually point to larger truths and the forces determining Indus culture and elite behaviours. A similar approach is taken by Adam S. Green in his essay "that draws upon experimental replication and microtopographic analysis to infer the operational sequences used to produce particular seals" (p. 187), specifically unicorn seals from Chanhu-daro. Like Jamison, he finds significant variation in how seals were carved that can serve as valuable clues to social structures.

The final Indus-related essay, by Steffen Terp Laursen, looks at the recent work on how ancient Indus seals and iconography were taken up and then rapidly transformed by Persian Gulf cultures just as ancient Indus civilization itself was declining (see Laursen's other essays on the subject). His research shows how, in what is a brief period of time in a specific area, ancient Indus seal went through a rapid evolution that paralleled social and economic changes in the Gulf. It is a case study on the international portability and adaptability of the seal and sealing concepts. Given Dilmun (present day Bahrain's) proximity to ancient Mesopotamian cultures, we can see how seals evolved to meet changing trade relationships as well. These Danish-led excavations are some of the most interesting today, with a lot of potential in understanding Indus seals and their role through the lens of an adjoining civilization.

Part III is about ancient Egyptian seals and sealing system, a culture where Mesopotamian-style cylinder seals were replaced with many kinds of stamp seals, the same kind as primarily used in ancient Indus cities. However, the Egyptian record, associated descriptive materials and historical trajectory of stamp seals is far longer and better known than in the ancient Indus civilization, making for a fascinating read where "as in other culture areas examined in this volume, the evidence suggests that the overriding role of sealing lay in the daily maintenance and monitoring of material wealth, as well as intellectual information in the form of papyrus records and correspondence" (p. 231). Most importantly, as we see with other and likely Indus cultures, a seal could have many functions in addition to their administrative function, e.g. as magical amulets or mythological encodings. Given that we can read ancient Egyptian languages, the use and role of seals becomes much more visible than we know of in ancient Indus contexts.

Part IV is about the ancient Aegean (Mediterranean) region, and in particular what we are learning about the peculiar uses of seals and sealing in southern Greece and on the island of Crete. Often very beautiful, these seals are shown to perform similar administrative and economic duties. There are even estimates of the number of seal types in the Aegean Bronze Age (2300-1300 BCE), perhaps 200,000 (of which 5% have survived), with significant personal usage although the principle of authenticating transactions seems predominant there as well.

In short, Seals and Sealings in the Ancient World is an essential volume in the global archaeological effort to better understand these most enigmatic but essential objects in the rise of early civilizations. They were the glue that held them together, and in whose transformations and ultimate absence the story and end of those civilizations was realized.

Hardcover: 494 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 30, 2018)
Language: English