Ancient Engraving at Its Finest

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.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.


Explore more cylinder seals in Bible History Daily:

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  • MIKE says

    It’s all part of a long process, for which sadly, we seem to make but the slowest of progress. As you do today, Rousseau also grappled with the paradox of civilized man “Although,in this state [civil society], he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever…..”

  • Bardaisan says

    How can people who are called Savages, “primitive and uncivilized” create such beautiful Art as on the engraving on the seal of Shalmaneser III the Assyrian King. Look at the clean details of the engraving. Everyone in the ancient world was savage when it came to survival against their enemy, not only the Assyrians. Look at the world today, the savageness of the west is somewhat cleaner because of the use of western methods; in the these of the world and especially in the Middle East, that is “Savagery” but due to political correctness it’s not described as such.

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