Late Uruk-Jemdet Nasr Cylinder Seals: A Window into Ancient Near Eastern Economic Practices and Activities
Ancient Near Eastern seals offer a window into the economic practices of the ancient world. The Late Uruk-Jemdet Nasr seals display some of the earliest forms of economic activities in the ancient Near East from the end of the fourth millennium to the early third millennium BCE. The impressions are generally found on bullae, especially on spherical bullae, and as suggested by scholars these were made by the individuals responsible for the administrative accounting processes represented on the seals (Rova 1994). When recovered in archaeological excavations seals and seal impressions are found in the private sector, further suggesting that these were used by private citizens and perhaps related to the jobs of merchants or a workshop owner.
The iconographic repertoire displayed on the seals varies and it includes actions related to production, craftsmanship, or construction undertakings. The most common depictions show individuals weaving, making pottery, churning, farming, hunting, and performing building activities.
Some of the aforementioned economic activities are documented in seals exhibited at the Freer and Sackler (F1999.6.19, F1999.6.9, F1999.6.6, F1999.6.7, F1999.6.2, F1999.6.19, F1999.6.59, F1999.6.11, F1999.6.12). While all the seals at the Freer and Sackler have schematic portrayals of individuals and activities being performed, one seal, F1999.6.59, illustrates a scene where individuals are manipulating objects that can be associated with the production of pottery or with churning activities.
This marble cylinder seal consists of three panels, each divided by grooves obtained by deep drilling. The drilling technique is also used to carve the motifs in the panels. From left to right, panel 1 displays a kneeling individual, on a mat or bench, with raised arms and three drilled, circular holes above the head. Panel 2 portrays an individual in a kneeling position, on a mat or bench, with raised arms reaching out to objects or tools. Finally, panel 3 shows two sets of objects. The identification of the figures and of the objects and tools is often the subject of debate. The individuals are often called the “pig-tailed women” due to their long, schematic hair style, mainly represented by a thin, carved line protruding from their head. However, this attribute alone does not allow us to assign it to a specific gender due to its simplified representation. Another issue is the identification of the activities in which these individuals are engaged. On seal F1999.6.59 we can observe the presence of circles reduced to single dots. On panel three are two sets of dots: the upper set shows a deep incised line protruding from a lower circle in the upper set, and a deep line protruding from the upper circle in the set below. These can be identified as pots with spouts or as bottles. Although it is difficult to define the activity being performed, Breniquet has proposed that the objects represented in seals similar to F1999.6.59 are possibly tools involved in churning milk and butter (for a detailed study on the identification of these activities see Breniquet 2016, 14).
In spite of the difficulties associated with identifying the various elements of the seals, they provide us with a window into activities that were performed in the ancient Near East, especially from the end of the fourth millennium to the early third millennium BCE, when professional craftsmanship (Stein 1996, Stein and Blackmann 1993) and the tools associated with it have been documented (Nissen 1989, Forest 1996, 120).