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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

June 20–August 4, 2013

New Administrative Practices: Stamp and Cylinder Seals

Stamp and cylinder seals were made of stone or other materials and engraved in intaglio; using this technique, images were cut into the seal material so that, when pressed into clay, the carved design stood out in relief.

Stamp Seal and Modern Impression Showing Hunter in Median Garb. Chalcedony. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (120326). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Seals played an important role in the ancient Near East. When impressed on clay documents, they served as permanent visual reminders of the sealer's participation in the performance of a personal, legal, or administrative act.

Stamp Seal and Modern Impression Showing the "Persian Royal Hero" Defeating a Winged Bull. Chalcedony. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (89893). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

In the Achaemenid period, both stamp and cylinder seals were used. One popular subject was a figure wearing a Persian-style robe and a crown, usually referred to as the "Persian royal hero," often shown doing battle with a mythological creature such as a winged bull. This motif was also popular in monumental art at Persepolis, where it appears on stone reliefs in doorways.

Cylinder Seal and Modern Impression Showing the "Persian Royal Hero" and a Second Figure Conquering a Lion and Bull. Chalcedony. Persian Empire. Neo-Elamite or Achaemenid, 6th–5th century B.C. British Museum, London, Claudius James Rich collection (89337). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Darius Cylinder Seal and Modern Impression Showing the King in a Chariot Hunting Lions. Chalcedony. Obtained in Egypt, acquired 1835. Achaemenid, 6th–5th century B.C. British Museum, London (89132). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.