Cylinder Seals: Tiny Treasures That Leave a Big Impression
Did you know there are seals at The Met? No, not the animals you can visit at the zoo, but objects that are used to make a mark on another object. There are thousands of seals at the Museum from all over the world.
The seals pictured above come from Central Asia, Europe, and Colonial America. Seals were made at different places and times and could be used to stamp important documents. Have you ever used a rubber ink stamp and an ink pad to make a design on a piece of paper? It's the same idea!
A seal could be pressed into wax, leaving the image on the wax. Then the impressed wax could be attached to piece of paper. What do you notice about the impressed red wax on the print above? An image of an artist's palette and brushes is pressed into the wax.
A seal could also be impressed on the paper itself. The page above is from an American passport from 1810. You can see a seal that looks like a sun, with an eagle in the center. It's an official government seal that was impressed on paper on top of wax.
Cylinder seals were invented thousands of years ago. The cylinder seal was a special kind of seal that could be rolled instead of stamped. For over 3,000 years, ancient people made and used them in the part of the world today called the Middle East.
So, what is a cylinder seal? As you might guess from the name, it's a cylindrical object. These cylinders were most frequently made of different types of stone. But they were also made from other materials like ivory, bone, and even shell. The cylinder seal above is carved into a piece of shell.
What makes these objects seals is that a design is carved into the surface of the cylinder. When the cylinder seal is pressed into and rolled on clay—as was done in ancient times—the design appears on the clay. The design appears in reverse! It's a bit like writing a note backwards and then reading it in a mirror. Today, experts at The Met create impressions of these ancient seals by rolling them on a modern material called Sculpey. You can buy it in an arts and crafts store. It's a lot like modeling clay.
Cylinder seals are some of the smallest works of art at The Met. They are often less than an inch tall, like the red one above. Some cylinder seals are a bit bigger. As you see here, they can also be thin or squat. There is no one exact size, but they are definitely miniature. When cylinder seals were created in the ancient world, tools for magnification—like microscopes or magnifying glasses—had not yet been invented. Imagine how hard it must have been to carve these tiny objects and into a round surface!
The first cylinder seals were probably made over 5,000 years ago. That's around the time that writing was invented. Cylinder seals had many different uses. They were often rolled on clay tablets and clay envelopes that had writing on them. The writing on these documents shows that different kinds of texts— like letters, receipts, and treaties— could be impressed with cylinder seals. The cylinder seal made a mark that functioned much like a signature.
Here are two sides of a clay tablet. The tablet is small enough to hold in your hand.
The tablet has writing on it. You can see it in the photo on the left. It is an early form of cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script. The writing records amounts of grain. On the right, you can see images of animals made by a seal that was impressed multiple times on the clay tablet. The line drawing shows all the images that wrap around the tablet that were made by the one seal. You can see a male figure with hunting dogs and wild boars.
Not all clay tablets and envelopes were impressed with cylinder seals. But when they are, the design carved on the seal stands out on the clay like a raised relief. You can see how the design is raised on the clay envelope below.
This clay envelope once contained a clay tablet. The clay envelope has raised designs from two different cylinder seals that were pressed into the clay. The first line drawing (Seal 57) shows the design at the top of the clay envelope. You can see four figures approaching a seated figure wearing a tall hat. The second line drawing shows the design at the bottom of the clay envelope. You can see one god holding a saw in his hand. He is walking toward another god, who is seated. What other kinds of beings—like humans and animals—do you see in the designs made by the cylinder seals?
Sometimes when I tell people that I work with seals in the Museum, they think I am talking about the American Museum of Natural History. But now you know that The Met has seals and that cylinder seals aren't a separate animal species!
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