Cylinder seal

A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch (2 to 3 cm) in length, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface, generally wet clay. Cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BC in the Near East, at the contemporary sites of Susa in south-western Iran and Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. They are linked to the invention of the latter’s cuneiform writing on clay tablets.[2][3][4] They were used as an administrative tool, a form of signature, as well as jewelry and as magical amulets; later versions would employ notations with Mesopotamian cuneiform. In later periods, they were used to notarize or attest to multiple impressions of clay documents. Graves and other sites housing precious items such as gold, silver, beads, and gemstones often included one or two cylinder seals, as honorific grave goods.

The cylinder seals themselves are typically made from hardstones, and some are a form of engraved gem. They may instead use glass or ceramics, like Egyptian faience. Many varieties of material such as hematite, obsidian, steatite, amethyst, lapis lazuli and carnelian were used to make cylinder seals. As the alluvial country of Mesopotamia lacks good stone for carving, the large stones of early cylinders were imported probably from Iran.[5] Most seals have a hole running through the centre of the body, and they are thought to have typically been worn on a necklace so that they were always available when needed.

Papiermuseum Basel 2008 (4)
Size comparison of seals, with their impression strips
(modern/current impressions)

While most Mesopotamian cylinder seals form an image through the use of depressions in the cylinder surface (see lead photo above), some cylinder seals print images using raised areas on the cylinder (see San Andrés image, below, which is not related to Mesopotamian cylinder seals). The former are used primarily on wet clays; the latter, sometimes referred to as roller stamps, are used to print images on cloth and other similar two dimensional surfaces.

Cylinder seals are a form of impression seal, a category which includes the stamp seal and finger ring seal. They survive in fairly large numbers and are often important as art, especially in the Babylonian and earlier Assyrian periods. Impressions into a soft material can be taken without risk of damage to the seal, and they are often displayed in museums together with a modern impression on a small strip.

Cylinder Seal, Old Babylonian, formerly in the Charterhouse Collection 03
Old Babylonian cylinder seal, c.1800 BCE, hematite. The robed king makes an animal offering to Shamash. This seal was probably made in a workshop at Sippar.[1]
Cylinder Seal, Old Babylonian, formerly in the Charterhouse Collection 09
Old Babylonian cylinder seal, c.1800 BCE, hematite. Linescan camera image of seal above (reversed to resemble an impression).
Cylinder seal Shamash Louvre AO9132
Mesopotamian limestone cylinder seal and impression—worship of Shamash, (Louvre)


Cylinder seal impressions were made on a variety of surfaces:

  • amulets
  • bales of commodities
  • bricks
  • clay tablets
  • cloth
  • components of fabricated objects
  • doors
  • envelopes
  • storage jars

Theme-driven, memorial, and commemorative nature

Cypriote - Cylinder Seal with a Nude Goddess - Walters 42415 - Side A
This cylinder seal from Cyprus shows two nude female figures. Each holds a flower, a symbol of fertility.[6] The Walters Art Museum.
Mesopotamian - Cylinder Seal with Winged Deities - Walters 421194 - Side B
This Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal shows a ritual with winged protective deities. Walters Art Museum.

The images depicted on cylinder seals were mostly theme-driven, often sociological or religious. Instead of addressing the authority of the seal, a better study may be of the thematic nature of the seals, since they presented the ideas of the society in pictographic and text form. In a famous cylinder depicting Darius I of Persia: he is aiming his drawn bow at an upright enraged lion impaled by two arrows, while his chariot horse is trampling a deceased lion. The scene is framed between two slim palm trees, a block of cuneiform text, and above the scene, the Faravahar symbol of Ahura Mazda, the god representation of Zoroastrianism.

Enki as portrayed in various cylinder seals, British Museum

Cylinder seals

S03 06 01 017 image 2348
Assyria. Seals showing method of mounting; Brooklyn Museum Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

The reference below, Garbini, covers many of the following categories of cylinder seal. Dominique Collon's book First Impressions, which is dedicated to the topic, has over 1000 illustrations.

A categorization of cylinder seals:

  • Akkadian cylinder seals.
    • Akkadian seal, ca. 2300 BC, stone seal w/ modern impression. See National Geographic Ref. The glyptic (the Scenes) shows "God in barge", people, and offerings.
  • Assyrian cylinder seals.
  • Cypriote Cylinder Seals.
  • Egyptian cylinder seals.
  • Hittite cylinder seals.
    • Clay envelope usage, etc.; see Kultepe.
  • Kassite (the Kassites), cylinder seals.
  • Mittanian cylinder seals.
  • Old Babylonian cylinder seals.
  • Persian cylinder seals; see Darius I, Robinson ref.
  • Proto-Elamite cylinder seals.
  • Sumerian cylinder seals.
  • Neo-Sumerian cylinder seals.
    • see Ref (Garbini), "Seated God, and Worshippers", Cylinder seal, and a modern Impressin, p. 40, (British Museum, London).
  • Syrian cylinder seals.

See also

San Andres Cylinder Seal print 1
A roll-out of the San Andres ceramic cylinder seal containing what has been proposed as evidence of the earliest writing system in Mesoamerica. This cylinder seal is dated to approximately 650 BC and is unrelated to the Mesopotamian cylinder seals.


  1. ^ Al-Gailani Werr, L., 1988. Studies in the chronology and regional style of Old Babylonian Cylinder Seals. Bibliotheca Mesopotamica, Volume 23.
  2. ^ Mesopotamian cylinder seals, British Museum
  3. ^ Why Cylinder Seals? Engraved Cylindrical Seal Stones of the Ancient Near East, Fourth to First Millennium B.C., by Edith Porada © 1993 College Art Association., The Art Bulletin, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Dec., 1993), pp. 563-582, JSTOR
  4. ^ Ancient cylinder seal found in Iran, 2 March 2009, Press TV
  5. ^ Why Cylinder Seals? Engraved Cylindrical Seal Stones of the Ancient Near East, Fourth to First Millennium B.C., by Edith Porada © 1993 College Art Association., The Art Bulletin, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Dec., 1993), pp. 563-582, JSTOR
  6. ^ "Cylinder Seal with a Nude Goddess". The Walters Art Museum.

Further reading

  • Bahn, Paul. Lost Treasures, Great Discoveries in World Archaeology, Ed. by Paul G. Bahn, (Barnes and Noble Books, New York), c 1999. Examples of, or discussions of Stamp seals, cylinder seals and a metal stamp seal.
  • Collon, Dominique. First Impressions, Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East, (British Museum Press, London), 1987, 2005. Very comprehensive and up to date account, with many illustrations. The author has compiled several of the volumes cataloging the collection of cylinder seals in the British Museum.
  • Collon, Dominique. Near Eastern Seals, (British Museum, London), 1990. Shorter account which also includes stamp seals . Part of the BM's Interpreting the Past series
  • Frankfort, H. Cylinder Seals, 1939, London. A classic, though obviously doesn't reflect later research.
  • Garbini, Giovanni. Landmarks of the World's Art, The Ancient World, by Giovanni Garbini, (McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, Toronto), General Eds, Bernard S. Myers, New York, Trewin Copplestone, London, c 1966. "Discussion, or pictures of about 25 cylinder seals"; also lists the "Scaraboid seal", an impression seal (needs to be a mirror/reverse to be an impression seal).
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Tablets, Cones, and Bricks of the Third and Second Millennia B.C., vol. 1 (New York, 1988). The final section (Bricks) of the book concerns cylinder Seals, with a foreword describing the purpose of the section as to instigate Research into cylinder Seals. The 'cylinder sealing' on the bricks, was done multiple times per brick. Some are of high quality, and some are not. (Also contains the only 2 el Amarna letters, in the USA, with Analysis.)
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ancient Near Eastern Art, (Reprint), Metr. Mus. of Art Photograph Studio, Designed, Alvin Grossman, Photography, Lynton Gardiner, (Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Spring 1984)), c 1984. 56pgs.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beyond Babylon, Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC, ed. Joan Aruz. 2008. Many cylinder seals of the period illustrated in color with impressions and descriptions.
  • National Geogr. Soc. Wonders of the Ancient World; National Geographic Atlas of Archeology, Norman Hammond, Consultant, Nat'l Geogr. Soc., (Multiple Staff authors), (Nat'l Geogr., R.H.Donnelley & Sons, Willard, OH), 1994, 1999, Reg. or Deluxe Ed. Origins of Writing, section, pp 68–75. Akkadian Cylinder seal, with its modern seal impression. p. 71.
  • Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing, Andrew Robinson, (Thames and Hudson), c 1995, paperback ed., c 1999. (Page 70, Chapter 4: Cuneiform) Ur-Nammu cylinder seal (and impression), with 2095 BCE hieroglyphs, 2X-3X; Darius I, impression only, of chariot hunting scene, 2X, ca 500 BCE.

External links


Abī-Ešuḫ (variants: ma-bi-ši, "Abiši", mE-bi-šum, "Ebišum") was the 8th king of the 1st Dynasty of Babylon and reigned for 28 years from ca. 1648–1620 BC (short chronology) or 1711–1684 BC (middle chronology). He was preceded by Samsu-iluna, who was his father.

Adam and Eve cylinder seal

The Adam and Eve cylinder seal, also known as the 'Temptation seal' is a small stone cylinder of Post-Akkadian origin, dating from about 2200 to 2100 BCE. The seal depicts two seated figures, a tree, and a serpent, and was formerly believed to evince some connection with Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis; however, this interpretation has been challenged by specialists.


Aplahanda was a king of Carchemish proposed to have reigned between 1786 and 1766 BCE.He was first known from a cylinder seal translated by Rene Dussaud in 1929. The seal was found at the base of the mound of Ugarit before excavations began.He is also found mentioned in the Mari tablets, reigning at the same time as Iasma-Addu and Zimri-Lim, by whom he is addressed as a brother. His name was suggested to be Amorite by I. J. Gelb and the hypothesis of a semitic origin was supported by Wilfred G. Lambert.He was allied with Shamshi-Adad in a war against Aleppo that was unsuccessful.Aplahanda was succeeded by his son, Yatar-Ami. A daughter called Matrunna had a non-semitic, possibly Hurrian name. He is known to have died in 1766 from a letter of Ishtaran-Nasir.


Apliki (Greek: Απλίκι) is a small village in the Nicosia District of Cyprus, located 2.5km North-East of Palaichori Oreinis and is at an altitude of 720 meters above sea level.Apliki is located west of the small “Maroullenas” river, which flows into the river of Akaki. It is exactly in the south and east of the settlement, where first the stream of Apliki flows into the river of “Maroullenas” and then the stream of Kampi flows into the same river.Apliki was a copper mining region dating from the late 14th Century BC. Excavations show it to have been a smelter site, built on rocky terraces. Four houses were excavated, with rich findings, including an ivory cylinder, a cylinder seal of steatite and a gold earring.


Artacoana (Ancient Greek: Ἀρτακόανα) or Artacana or Articaudna (Ἀρτίκαυδνα) or Chortacana or Artacaena, name of the capital of Aria, an eastern satrapy of the Persian empire.

In late 330 B.C. Alexander the Great, according to his biographers, captured Artacoana, the Areian capital. Later, a new capital was built, either by Alexander himself or by his successors, Alexandria Ariana (Ἀλεξάνδρεια ἡ ἐν Ἀρίοις), modern Herat in northwest Afghanistan. Ptolemy lists several other cities, an indication of the province's wealth and fertility. The most important, according to Ptolemy were:

The etymology of this name remains unknown, and whether this place should be identified with the modern city of Herat is also uncertain, although the strategic position of modern Herat would suggest its great antiquity; and thus the possibility remains that they are one and the same place. In the early nineteenth century a Persian Achaemenid cuneiform cylinder seal was found in or near Herat.

Den seal impressions

In 1985, the German Archaeological Institute discovered seal impressions of a cylinder seal in the tomb of First Dynasty king Den. They were published by Günter Dreyer the following year. The impressions are the earliest confirmed king list for ancient Egypt.The names are listed in following order:






Merneith (Den's mother and regent)The list bolsters the argument that Narmer was the founder of the First Dynasty as opposed to being the last of the pre-unification kings of Thinis. Also of importance is the absence of Menes as scholarly consensus believe Menes was a later variation of Narmer's name.


Ilī-ippašra, inscribed DINGIRmeš-ip-pa-aš-ra, and meaning "My god(s) became reconciled with me", was a Babylonian who may have been adopted or apprenticed during the reign of Kassite king Kurigalzu I, ending ca. 1375 BC, and rose to become an official, possibly the governor of Dilmun, Failaka, Kuwait and ancient Bahrain, during the later reign of Burna-Buriaš II, ca. 1359-1333 BC (short chronology). He may have been a successor for Usi-ana-nuri-?, the viceroy of Dilmun who was attested in the cylinder seal of his grandson, Uballissu-Marduk.

Impression seal

The impression seal is a common seal that leaves an impression, typically in clay and less often in sealing wax. In antiquity they were common, largely because they served to authenticate legal documents, such as tax receipts, contracts, wills and decrees. They are favorite topics of study because they were usually carved with important "themes" of the society that produced them, rather than with an ordinary signature.

The two most common types are the cylinder seal and the stamp seal. There are many cylinder seals, with religious or mythological themes; a famous one depicts Darius I. Stamp seals include the LMLK seals from Lachish (ca 700 BC) and seals in Tell Halaf.

Others, less common, include the Egyptian, Levantine, or Canaanite scaraboid seals, and the metal stamp seal.


Isimud (also Isinu; Usmû; Usumu (Akkadian)) is a minor god, the messenger of the god Enki, in Sumerian mythology.In ancient Sumerian artwork, Isimud is easily identifiable because he is always depicted with two faces facing in opposite directions in a way that is similar to the ancient Roman god Janus.

Kelar Mound

Kelar Mound or Kelar Tappeh is a Neolithic archaeological site in Mazandaran Province, Iran. It lies on the Kelardasht plain in the Alborz Mountains. The 10-meter high mound covers an area of 6,000 hectares. Studies of the carbon-14 remains (coal and bone) have dated the site to 6,000 before present. A cylinder seal recovered at the site depicts a man and a goat.


Khamudi (also known as Khamudy) was the last Hyksos ruler of the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt. Khamudi came to power in 1534 BC or 1541 BC, ruling the northern portion of Egypt from his capital Avaris. His ultimate defeat at the hands of Ahmose I, after a short reign, marks the end of the Second Intermediate Period.


Neferkahor was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the Eighth Dynasty during the First Intermediate Period. According to egyptologists Jürgen von Beckerath and Darrell Baker, he was the eleventh king of this dynasty.

His name is attested on the Abydos King List (number 50) and on a black steatite cylinder seal of unknown provenance. His name is absent from the Turin canon, a lacuna affecting the 7th/8th dynasty where his name would have been listed.

Neferkare Khendu

Neferkare Khendu (also Neferkare IV) was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the Eighth Dynasty during the early First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 BC). According to the egyptologists Kim Ryholt, Jürgen von Beckerath and Darrell Baker he was the sixth king of the Eighth Dynasty.Neferkare Khendu's name is attested on the Abydos King List (number 45), a king list dating to the Ramesside-era, and is absent from the Turin canon as a large lacuna in this document affects most kings of the 7th/8th Dynasty.

No attestation is firmly attributable to Neferkare Khendu beyond the Abydos king list, although a cylinder seal inscribed with the cartouche Ḫndy, "Khendy", has been tentatively attributed to him by the egyptologist Henri Frankfort in 1926. Modern scholarship has shown however that the cartouche on the seal is most likely to read "Khamudi", name of the last king of the Hyksos, and furthermore that this cartouche was inserted on the seal as a space filler rather than as an explicit reference to this king. The seal is now in the Petrie Museum, catalog number UC 11616.


Neferkasokar (Ancient Egyptian Nefer-Ka-Seker; which means “beautiful soul of Sokar” or “the soul of Sokar is complete”) is the name of an Ancient Egyptian king (pharaoh) who may have ruled in Egypt during the 2nd dynasty. Very little is known about him, since no contemporary records about him have been found. Rather his name has been found in later sources.


The serpopard is a mythical animal known from Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art. The word "serpopard" is a modern coinage. It is a portmanteau of "serpent" and "leopard", derived from the interpretation that the creature represents an animal with the body of a leopard and the long neck and head of a serpent. However, they have also been interpreted as "serpent-necked lions". There is no known name for the creature in any ancient texts.

Sobekhotep VI

Khahotepre Sobekhotep VI (also known as Sobekhotep V) was an Egyptian king of the 13th Dynasty during the Second Intermediate Period. According to egyptologist Kim Ryholt he was the thirty-first pharaoh of the dynasty, while Darrell Baker believes instead that he was its thirtieth ruler. Alternatively, Jürgen von Beckerath and Detlef Franke see him as the twenty-fifth king of the dynasty.


Mehibtawy Sekhemkare Amenemhat Sonbef (also Amenemhat Senbef) was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty during the Second Intermediate Period. According to egyptologists Kim Ryholt, Jürgen von Beckerath and Darrell Baker, he was the 2nd king of the dynasty, reigning from 1800 BC until 1796 BC.

Tree of the knowledge of good and evil

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil (עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע‬; Hebrew pronunciation: [ʕesˤ hadaʕaθ tˤɔv waraʕ]) is one of two specific trees in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2–3, along with the tree of life.


Utu, later worshipped by East Semitic peoples as Shamash, is the ancient Mesopotamian god of the sun, justice, morality, and truth, and the twin brother of the goddess Inanna, the Queen of Heaven. His main temples were in the cities of Sippar and Larsa. He was believed to ride through the heavens in his sun chariot and see all things that happened in the day. He was the enforcer of divine justice and was thought to aid those in distress. According to Sumerian mythology, he helped protect Dumuzid when the galla demons tried to drag him to the Underworld and he appeared to the hero Ziusudra after the Great Flood. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, he helps Gilgamesh defeat the ogre Humbaba.

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