Does a Cylinder Seal Impression Depict the Oldest Musical Scene in Israel?

5,000-year-old pithos preserves cylinder seal impression

A 5,000-year-old cylinder seal impression may portray the earliest known musical scene in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced. IAA archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz, Dr. Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov will present their research on the cylinder seal impression in a symposium on May 28, 2015, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


A cylinder seal impression on an Early Bronze Age pithos fragment portrays what may be the earliest known musical scene in Israel. Photo: Nimrod Getzov, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority.

The musical scene is preserved on a fragment of an Early Bronze Age pithos (large clay storage jar). The scene was made by rolling a cylinder seal, which was engraved with images, onto the surface of the clay pithos before it was fired. Impressed on the pithos are repeating mirror images from the cylinder seal.


A Mesopotamian carved cylinder seal. Photo: Wayne T. Pitard.

“For about 3,000 years (c. 3400–400 B.C.E.), cylinder seals played a significant role in the lives of Mesopotamians, and the designs carved on them became one of the great art forms of the region,” explained Wayne T. Pitard, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Director of the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in a Biblical Archaeology Review article.

“Cylinder seals were usually carved from stone and were quite small—between 0.5 and 1.5 inches high,” continued Pitard. “Over the centuries, the making of seals spread from Mesopotamia and Iran to the Levant and even Egypt.”

Three female figures are portrayed in the cylinder seal impression on the Early Bronze Age pithos: Two are standing and one is sitting, the latter playing what appears to be a lyre (see reconstruction below). The pithos sherd was discovered in the 1970s by Dr. Rafi Frankel at Beit HaEmek during an archaeological survey of Western Galilee.

According to the IAA archaeologists, the musical scene is part of a Mesopotamian “sacred marriage” ceremony between the king and a goddess.

“In this ceremony, a symbolic union took place between the king and a goddess (actually represented by a priestess),” the archaeologists said in an IAA statement. “The ceremony included several rites: music and dancing, a banquet, a meeting between the king and the goddess and an act of sexual congress between them.”


Reconstruction of the musical scene depicted on the Early Bronze Age pithos sherd from Beit HaEmek. Image: Nimrod Getzov, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“This is the first time it is definitely possible to identify a figure playing an instrument on a seal impression from the third millennium B.C.E.,” the archaeologists continued. “This is when most of the ‘cultic’ impressions from Israel depict dancing figures or the feasting scene in which the female and male figures are shown facing each other, in the rite just before their sexual encounter.”

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

Explore more cylinder seals in Bible History Daily:

Cylinder Seals: A Better Impression

Ancient Engraving at Its Finest

The Kani Shaie Archaeological Project: Investigating Early Bronze Age Kurdistan

The Genesis of Brewing


2 Responses

  1. Paul Ballotta says:

    As far as we know, the above comment could be right because this is the first representation of a stringed instrument that we have, around 3000 B.C.E. The animal husbandry of Jabal (Genesis 4:20) had by that time had been around for millennia, as was the metallurgy of Tubal-cain (Genesis 4:22) that had by that time been around for a millennium, (the name Tubal was first mentioned as a kingdom in present day central Turkey in Neo-Assyrian records from the 8th century B.C.E., while the name Cain, which means “smith, forger,” may be a reference one of the merchant colonies in Anatolia known as Kanesh in the same region as Tabal where Assyrians assimilated with Hittites, Hurrians and Indo-Europeans and traded in copper during the 19th and 18th century B.C.E. As for the sister of Tubal-cain, who isn’t associated with any trades, other than her name, Na’amah, meaning “beautiful,” may be a possible reference to the mother goddess that was discovered in the southern central Anatolian city of Chatal Huyuk. Dating to the 7th millennium B.C.E., the female ceramic figurines are representative of the status of women as being equal to men. The mineral-rich region of Anatolia provided minerals that were ground into colorful pigments for elaborate wall murals, some having geometric patterns:
    “Some experts have compared the patterns with the woven rugs traditionally made in Turkey, but there is no other evidence for weaving with different colored yarn at this date” (“Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East” by Michael Roaf, p.43).
    Archaeologist Yosef Garfinkle compared samples from drawings on painted pottery and carved stone made between 5000 to 3000 B.C.E. and concluded that before the advent of writing around 3000 B.C.E. people in agricultural villages performed ritual dances through which ideas were communicated through a public ceremony and that this was done away with around 3000 B.C.E. with the rise of kings who did not communicate from the “grass roots” level and basically just told everyone what to do. The Genesis account seems to reflect Garfinkle’s explanation that these prehistoric villages believed in a common ancester (not unlike the three major religions having Abraham as a common ancestor, in a macrocosmic way) and that these ancestors were what acted as a bond for the members of a community, that is, until Lamech shows up, the ancestor of the ancestors who doesn’t seem to do anything in particular but sire descendants (Genesis 4:19) and to later boast to his wived about killing a man (Genesis 4:23-24).
    “Dance, to the movement of the stars,
    sing, till the walls around us ring;
    Pray, that it never fades away,
    Until we sleep.”
    From the song “Until We Sleep,” by David Gilmour.

  2. Kurt says:

    Jubal, a descendant of Cain, is mentioned in the Bible as “the founder of all those who handle the harp and the pipe.” (Genesis 4:21) He may have invented both stringed and wind instruments.About 5000 years ago.

    The Bible describes many events in which music played a part. Yet, it says very little about the instruments themselves. By means of archaeological discoveries and ancient writings, however, scholars have tried to determine the appearance and sounds of ancient musical instruments. Some conclusions are conjectural.

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