First attested in southern Iraq and southwestern Iran during the second half of the fourth millennium BCE, cylinder seals served as popular means of communication for almost three millennia. Their distribution stretches from the Eastern Mediterranean coast to the Iranian plateau. Figures and inscriptions carved into small cylinders of stone, or later of frit and metal, would be rolled out as markers of authenticity and legitimation on clay stoppers for doors and containers as well as on cuneiform tablets such as administrative accounts, contracts, and letters. The durability of stone and dried clay resulted in an enormous body of data, which connects ancient people, institutions, images, and texts.
Cylinder seals have always fascinated archaeologists and collectors. Today, seals and seal-bearing artefacts (mostly cuneiform tablets) can be found in many museums specialising in ancient cultures, within and beyond the Middle East.
Generations of curators and scholars have engaged in their proper visual documentation creating modern impressions in plaster and plastiline, photographs, and drawings. Recent advances in 3D-imaging techniques serve to capture the intriguing physical nature of cylinder seals particularly well and become increasingly available online. However, the faint traces of seal impressions on much worn or broken clay fragments still call for the expert’s eye and hand — capable to reconcile multiple snippets into a coherent composite image.
Sorting the unruly world of ancient artefacts and images into catalogues, types, formalised descriptions, and stylistic attributions lies at the heart of archaeological and art historical research. Once published in a prefixed format and assigned by a specialist to a certain category, only few prominent seals and sealings become subjects to reinvestigations and further inquiries — especially when the pictorial components of a seal are discussed apart from its textual components translated by cuneiform experts. While traditional seal catalogues often privilege textual descriptions over quality illustrations, online collections may offer fantastic pics but run short on backgrounds for non-specialists, or search-and-retrieve data options for expert.
ACAWAI-CS will not reinvent the wheel on cylinder seal research but pull threads to gain knowledge from a dispersed and diverse body of analogue and digital data. We build upon published catalogues of seals and sealings, using the drawings of seal experts, thumbnail sized black-and-white photographs, and fancy laser scans, to arrive at our image annotations.
Obviously, we ask copyright holders for permission and investigate terms of usage before publishing anything on our website. This is a work in progress and a cooperative process, and we thank everyone willing to share her or his work with the research community!
To provide insights in the rich bibliography, which already exists on the West Asian seals record, we compiled a Zotero literature database which is available for your research.
Cylinder seal impressions on a clay tablet discovered at Ur (LMU Ur Project), on a modern plaster roll-out (BM 89862, plaster cast at LMU Munich) and on a clay tablet envelop from Ishachali (OIM Chicago A7633, photo: P. Paoletti).