The Habib Anavian Collection:
Near Eastern Cylinder & Stamp Seals from the
Early 6th Millennium B.C. to 651 A.D.
For 28 years, Habib Anavian, the knowledgeable
Iranian art dealer and collector, has been buying cylinder and stamp seals.
This catalog presents 427 seals from his collection. They come from the
geographical area known as the Ancient Near East, comprising present-day
Iran, Iraq, Syria, and parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Stamp
seals first occur in mid 6th millennium B.C. levels in Iraq, Syria and
Turkey; the earliest cylinder seals, found in archeological excavations
at Uruk in Iraq and Susa in Iran, date around 3300 B.C.
Early stamp seals are in the shape of hemispheres
(Nos. 2-3, 6, 9), gables (No. 4) or pyramids (No. 1), or are simply flattish
pieces of clay or stone, sometimes pierced with a hole for suspension,
with an incised design on one smooth surface. They were patterned geometrically
with segmented circles (Nos. 2-3, 7-8) or just random arrangements of
lines and dots (Nos. 1, 4-6). Usually the whole seal surface is utilized.
The first appear in small farming villages. The term for this stage in
man's life, Chalcolithic, comes from the Greek chalos, meaning copper,
and lithos, stone, indicating the use of both flint and obsidian points
along with newly developed and revolutionary copper tools. Stamp seals
and their first impressions are rare finds in these early settlements
and there are few clues to their use. Some may have been dipped in dyes
and stamped on textiles. Some were no doubt worn as protective amulets.
They were not used for pottery decoration, a seemingly obvious application.
After 5000 B.C., figurative designs began
to appear on stamp seals, although infrequently. Most of these center
on hunting themes--men and animals (No. 21), or animals alone, such as
the superb large stamp, No. 10. Little blank space is left, and animals
are often placed back-to-back or around the perimeter so that no single
position is a correct one for viewing (Nos. 10, 19-20).
Most impressions from this period have been
found on lumps of clay with string marks on the convex surface. Now one
purpose of the seals is clear: they were used to prevent pilferage from
storage jars. The clay jar was closed with a cloth or leather cover, tied
on with string. A fresh wad of clay was pressed onto the top of the jar,
enclosing all or part of the string. The seal was impressed on the wet
clay. This made it impossible for anyone to open the jar without breaking
the dried wad. A person who did not possess the stamp seal could not replace
the clay without having the loss discovered.
The need to seal off storage jars demonstrates
that agricultural surpluses existed, both to tide people over the winter
and to be exchanged for metals and other goods with less settled groups.
It is generally conceded that the development of more efficient agricultural
methods led to a widespread advance for mankind. As fewer people were
needed to assure the food supply, many were freed for activities such
as metalsmithing, trading and building. This led to the next major step,
It was in the greatest of the early cities
that the first cylinder seals appeared, at Uruk. They were created by
the Sumerian's who dwelt mostly in southern Iraq, known to later historians
as Mesopotamia or "the land between the rivers," the Tigris
The clay jar sealings impressed with a continuous,
repeated design rather than the simple stamps were found in Uruk at the
level dated to 3300 B.C., and in contemporary Susa in Iran, a closely
From the beginning, figurative designs prevailed
on the cylinders. Although scenes with wild animals were preferred at
first, these gradually faded out in favor of domestic animals and religious
themes, reflecting the growing importance of the city and its inhabitants
Cuneiform, a system of syllabic notation,
was developed by the Sumerian's around 3000 B.C.. It was written with
a wedge shaped stylus on clay tablets which offered a perfect surface
for cylinder seals and their picture bands. Were they impressed on both
tablets and jar sealings has a mark of ownership? Or do they also have
a protective function? Probably both. Many excavated seals are found in
temples or graves, pointing to their use as votive gifts.
Although different seals often have the same
motif, each is completely individual. Generally of soft stones at this
time--steatite and chlorite, limestone and serpentine--the Uruk seals
tend to be large. The best engravings have rounded modeling and show careful
observation of anatomy, both animal (such as the lovely pastoral scene
on No. 26) and, for the first time, human. Early Neolithic cave paintings
have remarkably accurate animal portrayals, but man is only schematically
drawn until the Sumerian's. Tiny details were done with infinite skill
by an artist working at a negative design on a smooth stone cylinder.
No magnification was available. Using copper or bronze tools, a small
bow drill and abrasive powder, the Sumerian seal cutter achieved a unique
art and realized it fully.
During the Jamdat Nasr period (3100-2900
B.C.), although many fine seals were made, designs tend to be limited,
repetitive and coarsely engraved. The rounds drilled holes and sharp engraver
slashes were not carefully joined and filled out to make realistic figures
as before, but used rawly in an abstract manner to indicate man or animal.
Some of the most puzzling of all seals were
made then, among them the "pigtailed lady" series. Three or
four drill holes indicate the lady, straight lines her two arms and pigtail.
Sometimes she appears to be seated on a low stool or bench, and the objects
in front of her, on which she is probably working, are various combinations
of hemispheres and lines which defy interpretation. Or, as in No. 32,
she apparently is part of a ritual with standards.
Why this sudden coarsening of technique?
The new founded popularity and resulting mass production may have led
to degeneracy of quality, as suggested by Henri Frankfort (CS, pp. 30-31),
one of the first scholars to give cylinder seals serious study. Besides
the cursory pigtailed ladies, other common subjects were animal rows (some
with enigmatic "ladders" above them: see nos. 28-29), animals
and temple facades, and sloppy geometric patterns (Nos. 34, 37).
As Sumerian civilization grew and expanded
during the third millennium B.C., seals improved. This period (2900-2370
B.C.) is called the early dynastic after the first known kings in history.
Designs of the mid millennium are delightful, fully utilizing the cylinder
form in interlocking compositions that, when rolled out, seem endless.
These were prefigured earlier in Uruk or Susa with heraldic arrangements
of cross animals, but there the single pictorial unit was always obvious
and space abounded. Now dense tight groupings of men, monsters and animals,
all in vertical positions, battle or befriend each other in intertwined
combat (Nos. 38, 43-46). What do these scenes signify? Many attempts have
been made to interpret them but so far their meaning remains a mystery.
Other early dynastic seals show banquets,
where the seated participants, both men and women, are served by attendants
and sometimes entertained by musicians carrying bull-headed lyres exactly
like those actually found at the Royal Cemetery by Sir Leonard Woolley
in the 1930s (see no. 42). Many of the seals were made of lapis lazuli
imported from Badakhshan in far off Afghanistan.
New in the third millennium B.C. was the
practice of inscribing seals with names, probably of their owners, although
some with kings' names may have been given to officials or favorites.
Around 2370 B.C. Sumerian civilization fell
to Sargon of Akkad, a dynamic ruler who created history's first empire
(whether a commercial or political or both is still open to question)
stretching from the Persian Gulf into Anatolia, and from Iran to the Mediterranean.
Sargon was a great figure to the ancients, and gave rise to a legend that
as a baby he was set adrift by his priestess mother in a reed boat, found
by a peasant and raised by him, a clear prototype of the Moses Story.
Historically Sargon is first recorded as an official of a king of Kish,
another Sumerian city. Other Akkadians, distinguishable by their names,
known to have lived in Sumer, and no doubt joined Saigon's revolt against
The Akkadians were a Semitic tribe who quickly
adapted to cuneiform scripts to their own very different language, and
continued the use of similar seals but added new themes. Akkadian seals
by high points in the arts of Mesopotamia, and comprise the largest body
of material attributable to those talented people (Sargon's capital city
of Akkad has not yet been found). Gods were frequently represented--rarely
so by Sumerian's--easily distinguishable from mere man by their horned
crowns. Shamash or Utu, the sun god, is a favorite subject, rays projecting
from his shoulders (see no. 60); sometimes he holds a sword in one hand
and has his foot planted on a scaly triangle derived from the Sumerian
sign for mountain on either side of him to attending gods open the gates
of the sky at daybreak. Obscure motifs abound on the seals the data is
an interpretation is difficult, the dependent on later religious texts.
Two notable stylistic qualities separate
Akkadian from Early Dynastic seals and reflect the earlier Uruk seals;
a return to a more spacious composition with each figure clearly delineated
and standing out from the surrounding void, and a renewed interest in
sculptural modeling. In the Early Dynastic contests, the protagonists
often seem equally matched and no winner can be distinguished. Here powerful
heroes with bulging biceps and strained sinews defeat lion or buffalo
of brute strength (No. 54). Elongated arms and violent gestures make the
grasp of man upon beast a clear victory.
Another scene which makes its debut in the
Akkadion period is the 'presentation scene," where a minor god presents
a worshiper to a major deity. This is repeatedly used in the Neo-Sumerian
period 2113-2006 B.C.) When for the last time the Sumerians dominate -Mesopotamia
before fading away, and in the following Isin-Larsa) period (2017-1763
The history of man is in essence the history
of trade. One group has "hat another wants, and the only two means
to achieve this end are battle or peaceful trade. It was in the advance
of trade that the cylinder seal made its most important contribution.
With writing came the ability to set down
terms for business contracts. Indeed, the great majority of tablets are
contractual. But seal impressions were the signatures on these documents,
bearing all the weight and significance that is attached to anyone's name
on the dotted line today. Each man's individual seal was rolled over the
clay tablet, followed by the witnesses' seals--their notaries--then rolled
again on he clay envelope. This system, coupled with the early law codes,
provided the first real assurances in business dealings and made it possible
for international trading to take place among strangers.
The importance of sealed documents is clearly
stated in the law code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, written around 1800
B.C. "If a merchant lent grain, wool, oil, or any goods at all to
a trader to retail, the trader shall write down the value and pay (it)
back to the merchant, with the trader obtaining a sealed receipt for the
money which he pays to the merchant. If the trader has been careless and
so has not obtained a sealed receipt for the money which he paid to the
merchant, the money with no sealed receipt may not be credited to the
account" (ANET, p. 49, nos. 104 and 105). Another law states, "If
a seignoir, upon presenting a field, orchard, house, or goods to his wife,
left a sealed document with her, her children may not enter a claim against
her after (the death of) her husband, since the mother may give her inheritance
to that son of hers whom she likes, (but) she may not give (it) to an
outsider" (ibid., p. 155, no. 150).
The Babylonians, known to most people through
that famous law code,ruled Mesopotamia for the first time around 1850
B.C. Babylonian and Assyrian civilization (as well as that of the Elamites
in Iran) is divided by historians into three periods, Old, Middle and
Neo-, dating approximately from 1850-1600, 1400-1000, and 1000 to mid-1st-
The style of Old Babylonian seals is static
and often cursory in engraving but none the less fascinating as there
are a wide variety of gods and symbols, some probably astrological. Fish
(no. 121, an Old Elamite seal, and perhaps no. 103), lions (nos. 100,
102) scorpions (in the Ur III seal 69) and a nude female some associate
with Virgo (nos. 103-104 and perhaps 119) were commonly used. Presentation
scenes also continue (nos. 81-84).
While the Babylonians were the dominating
power in much of the Near East, the new nation of Assyria was also becoming
influential from its home in northern Iraq. Around 1800 B.C., the Assyrians
established a large colony of traders in the Hittite town of Kultepe in
southern Turkey (an area then called Cappadocia). Extensive finds of tablets
and envelopes have made this one of the best-documented periods in Near
Eastern history. Complaints of bad faith, profligate sons, high prices
and non-payment demonstrate once again that although times change, human
nature does not. One letter reads, "Thirty years ago you left the
city of Assur. You have never made a deposit since and we have not recovered
one shekel of silver from you but we have never made you feel bad about
this" (A.L. Oppenheim, Letters from Mesopotamia, Chicago 1967, p.
Seals and impressions from Kultepe provide
a polyglot mix of Assyrian, Babylonian, Syrian and Hittite iconography
which melds to form a distinctive style (nos. 110-114). The Hittites themselves
preferred stamp seals, often of metal, with simple designs enclosed in
Around 1600 B.C., Murshilis I, the Hittite
king, swept out of central Anatolia, devastated much of the Near East,
sacked Babylon, and then returned to his own land. The resulting power
vacuum in southern Iraq was filled by the Kassites, another Semitic group.
Kassite seals are generally distinguishable by lengthy inscriptions at
the expense of figures. Often there is only one standing man or god, squeezed
into a narrow closet-like space by columns of vertically placed cuneiform.
The last of the great cylinder seal periods
is the Middle Assyrian (1400-1000 B.C.). From the aridity of presentation
scenes, the crowded and jumbled symbols of Old Babylonian, and the wordiness
of the Kassites, there is a return to the legendary world of hero and
animal combat. Although the Akkadians used some trees or mountain symbols
to show a landscape setting, there is no question that the best of these
superb Middle Assyrian engravings takes place outdoors. Trees, flying
birds, stars and moons surround the slim, powerful hero and his adversary,
giving a three-dimensional quality at last. The blank background is air,
not void. The fine sculptural quality of the modeling prefigures the Neo-Assyrians'
talent for forceful stone relief.
1st-millennium-B.C. seals tend to be jejune
in design and workmanship. There are exceptions, of course, and both the
Neo-Assyrians and Neo- Babylonians produced some excellent ones, well-composed
and delicately detailed (nos. 223-224, 230, 262). But the art shows signs
The Neo-Assyrian period is especially well-documented.
Historical texts are numerous and tell of the exploits and battles of
their kings, Assurnasirpalll, Sargon II, Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal.
Excavations at Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad have uncovered vast quantities
of objects, both native and imported.
Stamp seals reappeared in Mesopotamia, perhaps
a result of growing western influence, around the 8th c. B.C. Mythological
and religious scenes predominate. They are usually made of attractive
colored stones, mostly chalcedonies, and shaped in elongated cones or
The era of the Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.)
is called the Achaemenid period, taking its name from King Achaemenes,
founder of the ruling dynasty. Cyrus II, called The Great, conquered the
Medes, Lydians and Babylonians in the mid-6th c. B.C., thus putting together
the beginnings of Persian dominance in the Near East which would last
until the coming of Alexander the Great.
Most Persians preferred the stamp seal, and
cylinders were apparently used only by court officials. But their use
was really archaistic, somewhat like the use of the Great Seal of the
United States today.
Why did the cylinder seal die out with the Persians? The most important
reason for its demise was the change in writing technique. Clay tablets
and Akkadian cuneiform gave way to faster cursive scripts like
Aramaic on papyrus or parchment. Then, too, by the 1st millennium B.C.
Akkadian was, like latin today, a dead language.
The Seleucids ruled most of the Near East after the death of Alexander
in 323 B.C. They gradually yielded to pressure from the Parthians (a tribe
probably of Scythian origin) and finally the Romans. Then Romans and Parthians
alternated in their control of large areas during the four centuries divided
by the arrival of the Christian era. What seals all three peoples used
were stamps, often set into rings or engraved directly onto metal bezels
The Sasanians conquered the Parthians in
220 A.D. and from then until 651 were the dominant Near Eastern power.
An Indo-European people, they followed the teachings of Zoroaster.
Most Sasanian stamp seals are ellipsoidal
in shape, and some have carved decoration to enhance the rich-looking
translucent stones they favored. large holes in the center of the ellipsoids
enabled them to be strung on chains or thongs and worn around their owners'
necks. Many Sasanians must have possessed seals as a number are extant
today in museum and private collections.
The handful of scholars who have dealt with
Sasanian seals disagree in most cases on the dating. It is usually done
by comparison with coins, but serious questions on coin dates and mint
locations cloud the issue further. Few Sasanian sites have been excavated
and other comparative material is scarce.
The Byzantines deposed the Sasanians, and
then were themselves
forced out by the Arabs. The anti-pictorial prohibitions of the Islamic
religion ended the long history of seal cutting as an art in the Near
The seals are arranged in approximate chronological
order and separated by geographical areas. The dominant color of the material
is listed first. Dimensions are in millimeters, and will in all cases
be the greatest. Height is always given first. For the cylinders or hemispheroids,
the second dimension is the diameter; otherwise the second dimension is
the one which parallels the boring, and the third is taken across the
boring. Where unusual shapes occur, the dimensions are, it is hoped, self-explanatory.
The photographs are not necessarily in scale with the actual size of the
Seals marked with an asterisk (*) also appear
on the color plates.
Joyce Geary Yolk
New York, N.Y. 1977