The Morgan Library and Museum
new York, new York
If Shalmaneser III of Assyria wanted to send a letter to his general fighting the army of Israel’s king Ahab at Karkar, he wouldn’t have signed his name in ink as we do today. Instead, he (along with countless rulers and officials in the ancient Near East) would have given his seal of approval—literally—by pressing an engraved seal onto the wet clay of a document. These small seals were made from semiprecious stones intricately carved with images and designs. Cylinder seals were engraved in the round so that when rolled across clay, a comprehensive, repeating scene emerged.
One of the best collections of ancient Near Eastern seals is housed in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. The seals in this collection span a period of more than 3,000 years, dating from the end of the fifth millennium to the fourth century B.C.E. The cylinder seal pictured above, Seal 747, depicts a superhuman winged hero fighting a lion for a bull; the hero is victorious, and the bull remains in his possession. It dates to the Neo-Babylonian period (1000–539 B.C.E.). The Morgan’s Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets exhibit also features a large collection of cuneiform tablets. These tablets with wedge-shaped writing cover a variety of genres—from letter writing to literature and legal texts. The objects in this collection were donated primarily by Pierpont Morgan, who acquired nearly 3,000 cuneiform tablets and more than 1,100 seals for his collection around the turn of the last century.