Making their Mark: A Concise Guide to Western Asiatic Stamp Seals

Differing from most of the delicate and sophisticatedly engraved stamps seals made of precious stones, the earliest ancient Near Eastern stamping devices were relatively large ceramic objects with a stem handle and with geometric patterns engraved on the bases. They have been extensively found in village settlements of the Neolithic period in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Levant and other peripheral regions. Their earliest dates can be traced back to as early as 6000 BC. Stamping impressions, with abstract patterns, have been found on the neck of pottery, suggesting they might have been used as a commercial marker to seal products. In the ancient Near East, the seal had become part of a system that monitored the production, movement and distribution of goods.

Setting a Precedent

Stamp seals preceded the invention of cylinder seals, replacing the crudely executed terracotta stamps first used in the early 7th millennium BC. They are carved primarily in soft stones, with a flat surface engraved with a gouging tool in geometric and figural designs, the latter appeared in a slightly later period. Stamp seals were usually horizontally pierced for suspension, thus the surviving examples conventionally feature a distinctive hemispherical or globular shape.

The earliest seals, especially those that were favoured in the late Uruk and early Jemdet Nasr period (circa 3500-2900BC), styled into zoomorphic shapes, were believed to have amuletic powers providing protection and good fortune to their wearers. However, stamp seals dating to the late Uruk period (circa 3500) are also found carrying geometric and numerical counters, suggesting a complex administrative system might have been connected to the usage of early Mesopotamian stamp seals.

Iconographic Representation

Mesopotamian stamp seals contain a wide range of iconographic representations, featuring individuals or figural groups that participate in the cultic production and redistribution of scared offerings or dedications. Traditional Mesopotamian images, presented on the stamp seals, containing a strong religious purpose. They were not simply used as personal ornaments, but a media recording significant administrative and religious practices. In ancient Mesopotamia, stamp seals witnessed a decline in their usage from the Early Dynastic to the Ur III period (circa 2900- 2047 BC) as the use of cylinder seals took hold. During the Babylonian and Assyrian periods, stamp seals were greatly rejuvenated via the introductions of various new shapes and innovative scenery representations.

Outside the scope of the centred Mesopotamian landscape, stamp seals found their unique expressions within the Sasanian glyptic realm. Sasanian stamp seals, amongst the Mesopotamian, Syrian, Anatolian parallels, stand out for their unique glyptic style. They  feature a strong abstract mannerism and highly standardised imagery depictions. The iconic motifs and scenes, include male busts, noble ladies holding tulips, Gayomard holding staffs, zoomorphic representations and religious symbolisms.

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By Anastasia,

  Filed under: Imagery & Symbolism, Near East   Tags: , , , ,
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