Cylinder Seals Enigmas


Cylinder seals were a small, carved stone cylinder that was used to make an impression in wet clay. When rolled on the wet clay, the seal left an impression that could prove ownership or identity. These small—about an inch to an inch and a half long—seals are delicate works of art, intricately carved with the tiny figures of gods, beasts and men, usually relating a myth, a banquet or an heroic deed.

For 3,000 years cylinder seals were used all over Mesopotamia and wherever Mesopotamian influence was felt. Most were made of stone, whether limestone or semi-precious stones such as carnelian or lapis lazuli. Some were made of copper, bronze, gold, ivory or bone.


Because cylinder seals were made of a durable material, they have survived the ravages of time. Over 2,000 cylinder seals have been found dating from a single thousand year period. Many more have yet to be found in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and other lands touched by Mesopotamia through trade or travel. Unlike fragile materials like cloth or wood, these samples of delicate craftsmanship in stone survive to reveal slices of Mesopotamian life. Their impressions on clay pots and tablets tell us of the existence of the seals even if they are never found.


Archeologists and historians value cylinder stones when they are discovered. The carving on the stones reveal a tiny picture of Mesopotamian life and give us an insight into these people of long ago. The pictures illustrate religious beliefs and myths as well as daily life and business deals. From the seals or their impressions we have details of Mesopotamian dress, dining, agricultural activities, dance, music and traveling. Themes on the seals include heroic actions, mythic endeavors, the gods, deeds of kings and daily activities.

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