The Habib Anavian Collection:

Ancient 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, urbanization.

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 and Euphrates.

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 allied society.

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 over nature.

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 their overlords.

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 B.C.).

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- millennium B.C.

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. 74).

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 guilloche borders.

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 of tiring.

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 rounded pyramids.

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 (no. 280).

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 East.

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.

Seals marked with an asterisk (*) also appear on the color plates.
Joyce Geary Yolk
New York, N.Y. 1977



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