When we think of the artistic accomplishments of the Ancient Near East, it's the great monumental structures that come to mind--the ziggurat at Ur, the barrel-vaulted arch at Ctesiphon, or sprawling temple complexes such as those at Persepolis and Khorsabad, of which only fragments remain. Yet there is a body of work that ranks, not just with those, but with the greatest achievements of all art: Mesopotamian cyfinder seals, simple utilitarian objects whose inscribed images constitute a narrative art of a power and sophistication out of all proportion to their diminutive size. Cylinder seals were produced between about 3500 B.C. and 500 B.C. primarily in the area we now know as Iraq. They are stone cylinders, rarely more than an inch tall and one-half inch in diameter--sometimes considerably less--into which has been cut an intaglio design, more often than not a scene of combat between men, or some fantastic creature, and animals. When rolled across soft clay, the image would appear in relief, quickly forming a repeat pattern if the seal was rolled over any length. They functioned the way rubber stamps or even one's signature does today, authenticating documents and protecting commercial goods from theft. Thus each image was, as it had to be, distinctive and unique.
Despite the fact that some of the greatest museums here and in Europe have extensive collections of seals, they tend to be known only to specialists. This is not only unfortunate, it's surprising, because there is much about them that speaks to our modern sensibility across the gap of five millennia, however accidental these affinities may be. The repetitive imagery finds resonance in the serial imagery of late-twentieth-century art, particularly that of the likes of Donald Judd and other Minimalists. And because of the seal cutters' considerable descriptive gifts, which allowed them to endow their depictions of animals with such vitality, there is a Muybridge-esque, even cinematic, quality to these rolled-out pictures, particularly when the seal design consists of a frieze of coursing antelopes or similar creatures. Indeed it was this suggestion of motion that most attracted the British art critic Herbert Read when he discussed seals in his 1954 Mellon Lectures, "The Art of Sculpture," at the National Gallery in Washington. Of a seal in the Louvre showing a line of running horned animals he wrote (in the lectures' published form), "We must imagine the cylinder moving rapidly across the soft clay and leaving a trail of animals. The animals would actually seem to move as the cylinder left its trace." And lest his point be lost on any readers, Read chose to illustrate his cylinder seal alongside reproductions of Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and a Futurist painting by Giacomo Balla.
Fortunately, two recent events have lately brought cylinder seals to a wider audience. As part of the series of small exhibitions it has mounted to celebrate its reopening, the Morgan Library and Museum has placed an abundant selection of its own large holdings of seals on view through next spring. (1) It gives admirers of these extraordinary objects a chance for some in-depth study and members of the general public an opportunity to discover them--as they are doing with delight, to judge by audience reactions I overheard during my own visits to the exhibition. In addition, the British Museum Press this summer published a revised paperback edition of the British Museum curator Dominique Collon's First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East, a book which, within the modest compass of some two hundred pages, manages to be the definitive study of this subject. (2)
Seals have long provided a trove of information to archaeologists about the civilizations that occupied or ruled over the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, chief among them the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Assyrian. We know the details of their religious beliefs and rituals, what their temples looked like, what they wore and how fashions changed. …