What are they?
Let’s start at the beginning. These tiny objects, known as seals (not to be confused with the animal!), were first made around 8,000 years ago. They were stamped or rolled over clay to mark possessions, as if the impression left by the seal were a signature to show ownership, but also to protect the content marked. Made from different materials, but mostly from stone, seals were either carved on flat circular surfaces to create a stamp seal or around a long tube-shaped surface to form a cylindrical seal. Here we will explore some seals housed at the Freer and Sackler.
This 5,000-year-old seal looks like a doodle carved out of stone. With flowing lines and simple shapes, the artist was able to draw an ibex (a horned, wild goat), a snake, and several birds that look like check marks or the letter V.
Did you notice all the dots? Some kids we spoke to thought it looked like the animals had chicken pox. Not to worry though! As far as experts know, these small circles on and around the animals are a common decoration and do not represent any diseases. This detail helps experts assign a date to the seal as one of the oldest in our collection.
When it was first made, this seal would have probably been used to seal goods. What animals would you use to decorate a seal? Share your ideas.
Look closely at the designs covering this cylindrical-shaped seal. Each one is a piece of a puzzle that tells a unique story about ancient Mesopotamia. Everything comes together once the seal is rolled across clay tablets to reveal its continuous design.
This tiny cylinder has a pair of figures in miniature. Who are they? The kilt and rounded cap mark the man as royalty. Do you see the vertical boxes behind him filled with signs? These wedge-shaped signs next to him are actually an ancient writing system known as cuneiform. Once translated, we learned that this seal belonged to Iddin-Shamash.
The raised hands and horned headdress help experts identify the figure with a long dress as the goddess Lama. She is best known as being a compassionate protector who introduces her followers to other gods.
Lions, Tigers, and Ostriches...Oh My!
Few people would expect to see ostriches on the list of terrifying and fearful creatures for heroes to battle. Surprisingly, ostriches were among some of the most fearsome animals in the ancient Near East!
These animals, whose feathers and eggs were greatly coveted in many ancient societies, were difficult to obtain due to the bird’s speed and ruthless defense of their nests.
This rarity was attractive to royalty who used depictions of ostriches and men hunting them to show their strength, cunning, and bravery. This seal, from 800 BCE, shows a hero holding not one, but two ostriches by their necks as a symbol of power and strength. What are symbols of power to you?
People from the ancient Near East were not just creative with their designs, but also with the animals they depicted. Take a closer look at this animal. What do you see? Horns, wings, four legs? This creature is a griffin. Griffins have the wings and head of a bird, and the body of a lion. Look closer and you’ll see his back legs are those of a bird as well.
Mythical creatures that combined two or more animal and human parts were popular designs for seals. Lion-dragons, sphinxes, and even fish-men were just some of the creative creatures these cultures used. What kind of creature would you create if you could mix and match your favorite parts of animals?
The word “passant” is used to describe the griffin’s stance. This means that the animal was made to appear as though it was moving and paused in mid-stride. This is depicted by having the griffin’s front right leg raised. Can you use your body to make a passant pose? Look in the mirror or take a picture to see if you look like you are moving while staying still.
One Hump or Two
What do you see when you take a look at this stamp seal? While most of us see a simple camel, the people of ancient Iran, during the Sasanian period, would have seen much more.
Camels were extremely useful, known for transporting people and goods across the world. Their ability to carry heavy loads gave them the name “beasts of burden.” For this reason, they became popular symbols for royal representatives who wanted to show their determination to work hard and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their kings. In addition, camels were not just animals, but a symbol of the god Verethragna. This connection to a god resulted in comparisons between the animal's characteristics and the god’s personality. Let's explore some of these similarities.
Do you see the large eye on this camel? This abnormally large eye almost looks silly in comparison to the rest of the camel’s body, but it was made this way to represent the ability to see in the dark. The large eye suggested that camels were able to see through darkness and that the person carrying this seal was wise and able to do the same.
Strength, loyalty, and wisdom are just some of the characteristics of Verethragna that the camel represented and therefore symbolized when used as a seal. What are three characteristics that describe you and how would you represent them on a seal?