Ancient Seal Technology Shows Its Age

By Gorman, J. | Science News, July 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Ancient Seal Technology Shows Its Age


Gorman, J., Science News


Somehow, ancient Mesopotamians carved elaborate scenes on the sides of crystal cylinders just centimeters tall. They even did this in reverse, so a cylinder would imprint its owner's mark when rolled across soft clay.

Archeologists have long guessed at engravers' techniques by studying their designs. Now, researchers have used modern technologies to illuminate the ancient ones, and they've found that Mesopotamians adopted one of their most efficient engraving methods some 1,500 years later than thought.

Cylinder seals originated about 3500 B.C., when early carvers began engraving soft stones, says Margaret Sax of the British Museum in London. Ancient people used the cylinders to roll their stamps of approval or ownership onto clay tablets, granary doors, and even the necks of sealed jars.

Over the millennia, new technologies arose for carving harder materials. Wheel cutting, the most efficient method for cutting tough varieties of quartz, used a tiny engraving disk at the end of an axle, which the engraver powered with the sawing motion of a bow. During the past 30 years, archeologists had placed the onset of this technology in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C.

Sax and her colleagues used scanning electron microscopy to identify the signatures of microflaking, filing, drilling, and wheel cutting in moldings of engravings they made themselves. …

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