Cuneiform Digital Library Notes
2014:001        «              »
The proto-Elamite seal MDP 16, pl. XII fig. 198

Jacob L. Dahl
University of Oxford

In 1921 Leon Legrain published drawings of 339 seal impressions found on objects recovered during the French missions to Susa. All its shortcomings aside, this publication remains the only comprehensive publication of the proto-Elamite seals. The catalog, briefly introduced on pages 1-2, lists the c. 1000 objects on which these seals were impressed. Unfortunately, a majority of the objects are referred to with numbers that have no clear referent (“1 á 620 : Fragments (fr.) d’argile avec empreintes, provenant de bouchons de jarres, de bulles, et de tablettes proto-élamites inédites.” Legrain 1921: 1).

Seal number 198 from Legrain 1921

Seal number 198 (pl. XII) in Legrain 1921 is of particular interest. Legrain’s reconstruction (according to his catalog from “AO. 512, nos 216, 5012”; but note that MDP 6, 216 does not exist), includes three identical humanoid figures: in the words of Legrain (1921: 51) “trois petits bons-homme, les bras tombants, ou tenant de petits vases”. However, a detailed study of the two best preserved impressions of this seal found on Sb 15229 (included on the photographic plates of MDP 6 with the number 4998, but never published in hand copy) and Sb 15456 (MDP 26 Supplement, 5012), first from RTI images produced in the Louvre Museum (January 2012 by Klaus Wagensonner), and later collation in the Louvre Museum (February 2013) by the author, has shown that these are not humanoid figures at all, but rather inanimate objects arranged together with other objects in a way that suggests a line-up of offerings.

Detail shots derived from RTI image of Sb 15229
Please note: GIF-animated files can be viewed in the online version only!

The object has a slight resemblance to a stylized date-palm with two date-clusters, one on each side. As such it is comparable to a number of similar objects on this and other proto-Elamite seals that appears to represent offerings of produce lined up next to animal figures (see for example Sb 06395 [MDP 6, 206] or Sb 06397 [MDP 6, 240]).

Whereas this correction may seem of minor importance (for the sake of completeness it should be mentioned that Delaporte in his 1920 catalog of the cylinder seals in the Louvre did not identify the shape discussed above as a humanoid, see Delaporte 1920 seal number 344), it is in fact critical in establishing the fact that the glyptic art of the proto-Elamite period was entirely free of depictions of the human body or parts thereof. The only remaining exception known to me is seal number 222-223 in Legrain (number 930 in Amiet 1972). For a discussion of that seal see Dahl 2005b: 106-107, suggesting that either (a) it was an heirloom seal as it is found exclusively on tablets that can likely be assigned to the same early strata as Lebrun’s Acropolis 16c, or (b) that it does in fact depict animals rather than humans filling the granary. The seal impressions on Sb 06351 and 06355 were restudied and imaged (RTI) in 2013, and although the general reconstruction of Legrain can be supported it is not clear whether the being on the ladder is human or not (the sealing Sb 02027 has a similar but distinct seal impression depicting humans carrying sacks up a ladder to fill a granary, and it is possible that the reconstruction of seal 222-223 was influenced by this much better preserved seal impression).

The sealing on the bulla Sb 02027

The absence of human form in the glyptic record is mirrored in the writing system where the only two signs that are possibly depictions of human body parts are members of the suite of numerical and non-numerical signs loaned together with the technology of writing in the Uruk V-IV period, namely KURa and SAL.

Legrain’s description of the scene of his seal 198 (1921: 51) suggests that the three humans were shepherds, and identifies the lion hovering in the same register as their enemy. The complete description of the seal in Legrain 1921 reads (my translation):

Pastoral scene. Two large bulls and a goat. In the upper register, three small ‘bon-hommes’, with arms dropping, or holding small vases. They are dressed in tunics and have a large triangular head. In the upper register, a cone-shaped milk vessel and a handled bucket complete the scene. A lion walks with an peaceful air wagging its tail. He is the enemy of the herdsman.

Remembering how high ranking members of the proto-Elamite society were represented by either lions or bulls (see in particular the so-called ruler’s seal found on Sb 02801), and ridding the scene of humans we may be able to read it as a simple representation of offerings of produce (represented by the different vases and baskets in the top register next to the lion) to or by the ruler (represented by the lion), either from a specific institution represented by the bovine family in the lower register (note that the small animal drawn between the bulls is not a goat, but rather a calf), or simply produce obtained from the animals. One of the symbols in the top register is drawn in a distinct way, comparable to the way writing-system signs are drawn in other seals. Although it has no exact match in the writing system it may still belong to that world. That again exemplifies the fluid nature of writing during this formative period, where signs in the writing system could exist as non-writing symbols, and symbols, such as standards or the like, could enter into the writing system as signs for offices or households (Dahl 2012).


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