Biblical Archaeology Review 40:3, May/June 2014

Circular Signatures: Getting a better view of Mesopotamia’s smallest art form

By Wayne T. Pitard

Readers of BAR are familiar with many of the great works of Mesopotamian art that were produced in what is now modern Iraq over several millennia: the Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, the stele of Hammurabi, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, statues of gods and rulers and the gold objects found in the Royal Tombs of Ur.a These objects inspire awe both because of their artistry and because they tell us important things about the religious, economic and political lives of the people of that culture.

There is another class of Mesopotamian artwork that has been much more difficult to appreciate because of its tiny size and peculiar shape, but it is fully as remarkable—the carved cylinder seal. For about 3,000 years (c. 3400–400 B.C.E.), cylinder seals played a significant role in the lives of Mesopotamians, and the designs carved on them became one of the great art forms of the region.

Cylinder seals were usually carved from stone and were quite small—between 0.5 and 1.5 inches high. They appeared about the same time that cuneiform writing on clay was invented. These little cylinder seals were one of the early administrative tools to emerge with the rise of bureaucracies.

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