The mark of history: The incredible ancient Sumerian cylinder seals

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Some of the most interesting objects ever recovered from Ancient Mesopotamia, without a doubt are the ancient Sumerian cylinder seals. A cylindrical seal is a small object decorated with images, words, or in some cases both, engraved on its surface in an intricate way.

A cylindrical seal is a small object with images, words, or both, engraved on its surface in an intricate way. They are important to scholars since they often tell a story about a specific timeline and civilization. The ancient Sumerian cylinder seals have left a true mark on history.

Ancient Sumerian cylindrical seals were applied by rolling them onto fresh clay, which left behind the impression.

When the clay was dried, the image was reflected on its surface. The use of the stamps in ancient Sumer was for a variety of purposes, including commercial transactions, decoration, and correspondence. The Cylinder seal was an extremely important part of daily life in Ancient Mesopotamia.

In Sumerian, cylinder seals were known as kishib and as kunukku in Akkadian. They were used by everyone, from royals to slaves.

The seals were made by a ‘sealcutter’ known as a burgul in Sumerian and as a purkullu in the Akkadian language.

The images were quite complex and beautiful.These cylindrical seals were used by cultures from the ancient Near East, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Hittites, and Persians.

These intricate objects originated in the Late Neolithic Period, sometime around 7600-6000 BCE, in modern day Syria as experts say. Some scholars are arguing that cylinder seals originated in Sumer, modern day Iraq.

The materials that were used for creating the Sumerian cylindrical seals were usually stones (sometimes semiprecious stones) of different types. The ancients utilized amethyst, obsidian, hematite among other elements.

However, other materials such as glass, ceramics, gold, silver, wood, bone and ivory were also used in ancient times to produce these objects according to experts.

Sumerian cylindrical seals also had other practical uses apart of being considered symbols of status and amulets. They were used to sign documents written on clay tablets. An individual could certify that the document was genuine by using a stamp to make an impression on the surface of a fresh clay tablet.

In business and commerce, cylindrical seals were used to certify that stored goods were not tampered with or stolen. In this way, we find impressions made by cylindrical seals on clay used to seal storage jars and on doors of warehouses in ancient Sumer.

Because of the intricate carvings covering very diverse subjects, the design of the Sumerian cylindrical seals has always aroused great interest among experts.

As noted by experts, the motifs were usually focused on three main motifs: combat, banquets and religious themes.

On their surface, we can see deities, human beings, plants, animals and religious iconography. Among other designs that can be observed on the cylindrical seals are geometric patterns and inscriptions in cuneiform script.

There are two styles of cylinder seal: the Uruk-style and the Jemdet Nasr-style which refer to the motifs used and the way the seals were carved.

There are numerous cylindrical seals in museums around the world. For example, the Baghdad Museum has a collection of 7,000 cylindrical seals, although most of them were looted when Baghdad fell into the hands of US troops in 2003.

These valuable archeological pieces have not yet been recovered.


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