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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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