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The Art of Identification

Signed and Sealed
Mesopotamia<br><i>Cylinder seal</i>, 900-400 B.C.<br>Semiprecious stone<br>Minneapolis Institute of Arts<br>Gift of Mr. and Mrs. I. D. Fink
Cylinder seal, 900-400 B.C.
Semiprecious stone
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. I. D. Fink


In ancient times, stone cylinder seals were used to mark personal property and official documents, much as we use signatures and official stamps today. Often the owner’s name and rank or occupation were carved on these seals, along with images of people, animals, and gods. This seal has two human figures, one riding a horse. The seal could be fastened to the owner’s necklace or wristband by a cord or metal pin passed through a hole made lengthwise through the center.

The first cylinder seals were made about 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). They were closely linked with the invention of an early form of writing on clay, called cuneiform (kyu-NEE-uh-form). As the influence of Mesopotamian culture spread, other civilizations began using cylinder seals.

In Mesopotamia and the surrounding region, most personal possessions were stored in jars or baskets. These were covered with a cloth secured with string, and a slab of clay was pressed over the string. The cylinder seal was rolled over the moist clay, leaving an imprint that identified the owner. Once the clay dried, anyone tampering with the contents would have to break the seal. Such seals were also used on warehouse doors and to verify accounting records.

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1. Rolled over wet clay, the MIA’s cylinder seal leaves an imprint of two human figures, one on horseback.
2. This cylinder seal belonged to Ibni-sharrum, scribe to a Mesopotamian king. The inscription reads “O divine Shar-kali-sharri, Ibni-sharrum the scribe is your servant.”
Mesopotamia, late Akkadian period, reign of Shar-kali-sharri,Cylinder seal of Ibni-sharrum, c. 2217-2193 B.C., diorite, Musée du Louvre, Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, AO 22303. Photography B. White
3. Egyptians used signet seals in the shape of the sacred scarab beetle to identify owners and authenticate documents.
Egypt, Scarab, 1504-1450 B.C., green-glazed steatite, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund


November 2009