Cylinder seals provide us with a wealth of information inherent in their materiality, pictorial and textual contents. A colourful and shiny stone cylinder worn close to the body of its owner, a well chosen combination of written and pictorial signs rolled out as perpetual bands on a lump of clay, the careful arrangement of seal impressions on a cuneiform tablet form a complex system of multimodal communication and perception. Any attempt to unravel their social and cultural functions must confront this complexity, first, by taking it apart, and second, by reconciling its components.
A strict differentiation between “artefact” and “image” forms the basis of our approach. A seal image could be impressed on several clay artefacts, and an artefact, i.e. a cuneiform tablet, or a simple lump of clay, could bear the impression(s) of one or more seals.
Each seal image consists of visual components which we call “picture elements”. We outline these elements in boxes and polygons, and annotate them in detail through a controlled vocabulary. Much stylistic and iconographic scholarship depends on comparing pictorial details across time and space. Thus, ACAWAI-CS offers help to anyone interested in the specificity of ancient hairstyles, seating furniture, lions, deities, monsters, etc. Similarly, annotated seal inscriptions can be filtered according to the gender, profession or institutional affilitation of the seal owners, or in view of the deities invoked in them.
While segmentation comes first, interaction and semantic relations between picture elements, and between picture and text, are what ultimate interests us. We find them visually expressed in the arrangement of figurative picture elements, in gesture, movement, gaze, the handling of objects, or placement of symbols.
“A picture is worth a thousand words…” but: How to capture its essence in less than twenty? Creating a concise and consistent vocabulary that turns the complexity of ancient West Asian imagery into a searchable dataset is quite a challenge. Over more than a century of cylinder seals research, scholars applied many different terms to the same compositions and picture elements. ACAWAI-CS seeks common ground, keeping its wording as simple as possible but as complex as necessary. We refer our terminology back to established thesauri like the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus or Iconclass whenever possible. However, it remains a work in progress, subject to change with the growth of the endeavour. More information will become available soon.