Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Cylinder seal and modern impression: ritual scene before a temple facade

Late Uruk
ca. 3500–3100 B.C.
Bituminous limestone
H. 4.5 cm (1 3/4 in.)
Stone-Cylinder Seals
Credit Line:
Gift of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky, 1983
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 402
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. The imagery on this seal depicts a procession towards a building represented by a schematic façade. Three nude figures approach the structure. The first bends to pour from a vessel into a container; the second, while mostly obscured by damage, stands upright; and the third raises an object–perhaps a vessel–in his clasped hands. A quadruped, two unidentified rectangular forms, a container, and perhaps a beaker are depicted in the field around the building, identified as a temple by its distinctive form and the activities around it.
Until 1983, collection of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky, New York; acquired by the Museum in 1983, gift of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky, New York.

“Ancient Art in Miniature: Near Eastern Seals from the Collection of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 10, 1987–January 10, 1988.

“Before the Flood.” Fundación ‘La Caixa’, Barcelona, Madrid, November 29, 2012–June 30, 2013.

Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 114 (Jul. 1,1983 - Jun. 30, 1984), p. 18.

Pittman, Holly, in collaboration with Joan Aruz. 1987. Ancient Art in Miniature: Near Eastern Seals from the Collection of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 14, pp. 52-53.

Bower, Bruce. 1990. "Civilizations and Its Discontents: Why Did the World's First Civilization Cut a Swath across the near East?" Science News 137, p. 136.

Rakic, Yelena. 2012. "Sello cilíndrico con escena ritual frente a la fachada de un templo (libación)." In Antes del Diluvio: Mesopotamia 3500-2100 A.C., exh. cat. Barcelona: Obra Social "la Caixa", Polígrafa, p. 224.
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