One of the first things that drew me to archaeology was these tiny little objects called seal stones. Occurring in almost any imaginable colour, each contains its own secret, revealed through contact with the earthly substance of clay. Every seal tells a story.
If you’re at all familiar with any of the regions of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, you would surely have encountered these little marvels. In the Near East, we find them most commonly in the shape of cylinders until the first millennium BC, while scarabs are common in Egypt, and stamp lentoid variations in the Aegean – and in typical mix-it-all-up manner, Cyprus has a bit of everything.
Seals are tiny objects engraved with a motif. They were used to secure – or authenticate – containers and correspondences. We find their ancient impressions on lumps of clay which were once used on vessels when shipped, and then broken when received or opened. They are also sometimes rolled out or stamped on cuneiform tablets. The motif would identify the owner of the seal or their representative. Sometimes it was accompanied by a small inscription, usually naming the owner and perhaps their family descent, status or occupation. Owners were often royalty or other high status individuals, but occasionally we get glimpses into more mundane occupations, as for example a cook and a nurse at ancient Urkesh in Syria (albeit a cook and a nurse working for the royal family).
So seals appear to have been primarily an administrative tool used by fairly wealthy individuals. But they could also function as amulets, have a talismanic effect and be worn as jewellery (nearly all seals are pierced so a string could be pulled through it). Seals were in most cases valuable items, not only due to the craftsmanship involved, but also the material they were made of. Various kinds of precious stones were used to make seals, including agate, lapis lazuli, quartz, obsidian, hematite and carnelian. The veining and semi-translucency of some would add to their magic effect. Examples in gold and other metals are also known, the Mycenaean and Minoan gold signet rings being the most famous. Others had gold caps added to the ends.
Since the seal is meant to be pressed or rolled onto unfired clay(1), they are carved in the negative, so that the inscription can be read – we therefore usually refer to the impression (ancient or modern) when describing the scene engraved.
Motifs and styles vary greatly. Many are miniature masterpieces, even if their primary function was not as a work of art. Some are as small as about the size of a finger nail. On this small surface, the craftsperson makes their mark. The information that can potentially be gained from these miniature images is immense. They often provide more detail than large-scale images. They are fantastic for studying ancient animals and human-animal relations. Animals are probably the most popular motif. A huge amount of real, mythological and hybrid animals are depicted, on their own, with human figures, or in a criss-cross of animal combat scenes.
Equids are usually depicted in chariot scenes, similar to what we saw on the Standard of Ur. These especially occur in the Early Dynastic III period, but do continue and change slightly during the second millennium BCE. In the Aegean, horses appear on seals from the early part of the Late Bronze Age.
Here, the fineness that makes seals so enticing is also what makes them challenging. The images are so small they can be difficult to see at all. It has even been suggested that some engravers were short-sighted. Added to this is common wear and breakage, and in some cases later re-cutting of the design. It is very difficult to take good photographs of a design, where resolution and light can make a big difference. Light from one side might miss certain details and the exact edge of the cut, and light from several angles or overexposure often means loss of depth. This loss of detail is an issue in many publications, and even more so in older ones.
To mitigate this, and to give a clearer image, drawings are made of the design. Drawings are also particularly useful for assimilating a single design when we have many partial ancient impressions of a seal, but not the seal itself. But they come with their own set of challenges, and there are many different styles of drawing. Details may again be lost, or even misrepresented.
A most admirable effort to comprehensively publish all Aegean Bronze Age seals and sealings has been made by the Corpus of Minoan and Mycenaean Seals project. This now also exists as a digital resource. In this case, every effort is made to take high resolution photographs of the ancient object, accompanied by drawings which are checked against the seal and corrected until every detail is satisfactory. The result is really quite wonderful, and it is entirely possible to use the database directly.
However, as a recent visit to the Ashmolean Museum reminded me, nothing beats seeing these objects directly, preferably with a magnifying glass at hand. This is where you get those little extra bits of information that can make all the difference – the shape of the ears and tail of an equid, for example. How the reins are attached or the position of the arms of a charioteer.
Equid on seals
Chariots and equids are sometimes engraved on seals. So we can learn more about the kind of chariots used, the harness and maybe even a bit about the situations in which they were used. The seal depicted above, another fine object from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, has two bands or registers. The lower register has equids in front of a four-wheeled chariot. This particular scene is very similar to the one on the Standard; it also has a row of what looks like soldiers with a prisoner, and a human body on the ground below the equids.
On another Near Eastern seal, we again have the four-wheeled vehicle, with each equid engraved separately. The charioteer is seated and the reins clearly go to the front of the animals’ muzzles, suggested the use of a nose or lip ring rather than a bit.
Seals from the Aegean show the use of the new ‘true’ type of chariot. This is a two-wheeled spoked type, which makes for a much faster and lighter vehicle. Combined with a new way of communication with the equids with the use of two reins and a bit for each animal, this greatly improves manouvering. The charioteer stands rather than sits, and has a whip to encourage the equids – in this cases horses. The horses on this seal are walking or trotting. Together, all of these small details tells us a lot about how humans and equids interacted and how animals were managed and trained.
Till next time, here’s an altogether different class of miniature marvel:
(1) Some seals may also have been used for other purposes, for example dipped in paint and rolled on cloth to make textile designs.
- British Museum 1897,0401.1
- British Museum 1901,1016.2
- British Museum 1898,1201.198
- British Museum 140703
- British Museum 1874,0305.8
- British Museum 105159
- British Museum 1900,0521.1
- British Museum EA37644
- British Museum 130691
- British Museum 113887