Mesopotamian Cylinder Seals—Exploring Glyptic Images

In the ancient Near East, cylinder seals were used over a wide geographical landscape, that extended from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) to the valley of the Indus River. There were various ancient Near Eastern cultures, that once flourished in the ancient Near Eastern landscape, that developed distinctive imagery representations and iconic glyptic styles expressing different mythological and religious believes. However, it was in Mesopotamia, the once-fertile alluvial plain traversed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the glyptic arts found its fullest and finest expression via the extraordinary engraving skills and rich imagery repertoire.

As per archaeological evidence, engraved stones had been used as early as the seventh millennium BC. However, the Sumerian invention of cylinder seals in the fourth millennium BC, that could be rolled over clay, allowed the development of more complex seal designs. Mesopotamian Cylinder seals, not only are the masterpieces reflecting extraordinary Sumerian and Akkadian glyptic craftsmanship, but also act as valuable corpus, on which numerous studies in terms of Mesopotamian religious practices and mythological beliefs are established.

A Mark of Ownership

Cylinder seals, carved from precious gems, first used in Mesopotamia, served as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on lumps of clay that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions.

Babylonian Agate Cylinder Seal with Ceremonial Scene

Cylinder seals, bearing horizontal registers that depict traditional Mesopotamian religious and mythological scenes, are regarded as the most significant collection among the entire Mesopotamian seal groups. Each Mesopotamian chronological stage developed unique and distinctive imagery, revealing profound religious implications that were closely associated with its periodical phases.

The Emergence of the First Cylinder Seals

Cylinder seals were believed to have first appeared in the Uruk period (circa 3500-3000 BC). Despite being at the earliest stage of the development of Mesopotamian glyptic arts, the Uruk cylinder seals have been given much credit for their unparalleled sophistication of both the engraving skills and presented images.


Early Sumerian cylinder seals, bearing meticulously carved religious scenes, were mainly dedicated towards deities within early Mesopotamian kingship and religious realms. This explains the strong naturalistic style that Uruk cylinder seals present. On Uruk cylinder seals, priests, greenery, and ruminants in a heraldic group express strong religious ties associated with the fertility god Dumuzid. The god was worshipped as a significant male deity, who possessed protective power over herds and plants, representing fertility and resurrection within the traditional Mesopotamian religion. He was considered the consort of the goddess Ishtar and together, their cult was worshipped until the 11th century AD.

The Jemdet Nasr period took place in southern Mesopotamia, with a great number of administrative cuneiform tablets and seals coming from there. These seals guaranteed the authenticity of marked ownership: as such, they were instrumental in legal transactions, and in the protection of goods against theft.

Jemdet Nasr Light Green Chalcedony Cylinder Seal

The Jemdet Nasr period had immediately preceded the Uruk period, dated to circa 3100-2900 BC. Different from the naturalistic glyphic style and meticulously expressed details seen on the Uruk cylinder seals, images on the Jemdet Nasr cylinder seals are featured with an abstract allure via their precise and schematic renderings.

Jemdet Nasr Cylinder Seal with Geometric Motifs

Those seals normally feature a horizontal register that depicts either an abstract tree of life motif or star signs in the iconic linear style of this period.

Dominating Political Powers

In the Early Dynastic period (circa 2900-2350 BC), Mesopotamia was mainly divided by two dominating political powers, the Sumerians at the south and the Akkadians in the north. The Akkadian Empire was the first ancient Semitic-speaking empire of Mesopotamia, centred in the city of Akkad and its surrounding region.

Akkadian Hematite Cylinder Seal

With the Akkadians a new style of seal emerged; inscriptions became the central focus with the scene organized around them, and human figures became more realistic and sculptured. Akkadian contesting scenes usually depicted a nude male figure confronting with a rampant animal. Such scenes show a great stylistic adherence to the symmetrical compositions seen on early Uruk seals. The Akkadian contesting scene might have owed its great popularity to the Akkadian heroic epic of Gilgamesh, who was worshipped as a hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology.

Mesopotamian cylinder seals, featuring realistically engraved horizontal registers that embrace the body of precious stones, reveal significant cultural aspects and religious implications which are absent from early literature records. They enable us to improve the understandings of the early Sumerian and Akkadian sacred and secular realms through their well-developed glyptic arts and rich imagery representations.

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By Anastasia,

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