Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mesopotamian Seal: Around The World From 80 Countries

Some of the oldest and smallest man-made objects in the Benton County Historical Museum collection are these cylinder seals from ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq).  Originally people sealed containers, placed a glob of clay over the opening, and stamped it with a flat stone with a simple design which identified the owner.  As population and bureaucracy increased, more complex seals were needed.  Beginning about 3500 BCE, people found they could include more symbols by carving a design into a cylinder which was rolled across the wet clay to create a long, frieze-like impression. 

Using mostly copper chisels and pointed gravers, the seal maker would carve a design into stone, bone, or ceramics.  Then, when the seal was rolled across the wet clay, the carved portions would appear as raised figures. Making the seal required a lot of skill as the craftsman had to imagine the design in reverse and then be able to carve the very small figures. The elaborate, often scenic, designs could refer to their specific family, their specific administrative job, their occupation, or the goods they traded.  Holes were drilled through the center of the seals so that it could be worn on a cord around one's neck or attached to a pin so that it was always handy.

After writing was developed, people also used the cylinder seals to sign clay tablet documents or to identify themselves. Owners would immediately report any loss to the government to prevent fraudulent use, just as we would report ID theft.

The use of cylinder seals diminished after 300 BCE but the idea is still around in the form of the seals notaries and governments use. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon 


  1. We have a 3d model of one of these seals on Sketchfab at You don't need to sign up or download anything to be able to rotate, view and zoom in on our 3d models.

  2. Dear Martha, great blog! Any chance we could get some linked references for the assertions (maybe for the next blog)?

    1. Hi, this is Mark. I'll pass on your query and compliment to Martha. Thank you for your interest!

  3. You don't need to sign up or download anything to be able to rotate, view and zoom in on our 3d models.