Cuneiform Digital Library Notes
2015:011        «              »
Seal Type A on Clay Bullae from the
Cornell University Collections*

Xianhua Wang
Sichuan University

The recent publication of 270 “archaic tablets and fragments” from the Cornell University Collections by Monaco (2014) is certainly a most welcome addition to the available corpus of the earliest cuneiform texts. In addition to the proto-cuneiform texts, some of which are sealed, the same volume includes 34 clay bullae supposedly from earlier periods (Monaco 2014: Nos. 001-034). An unexpected connection seems to exist between Seal Type A found impressed on some of the bullae and a unique seal (Woolley 1934a: Pl. 198, U. 11554) from the Tomb of the "Little Princess" in the Royal Cemetery of Ur (so named by the excavator Woolley 1934b: 162-164). Though not completely identical, the iconographic characteristics of the impression of Seal Type A, found on several of the clay bullae published by Monaco (2014: 2-3; 9 with n. 22; 159), appears to be so close to those of the seal of the Little Princess in PG 1068 in the Royal Cemetery of Ur that their possible connections must be seriously considered. If an iconographic connection between these two seals can be established with any degree of certainty and properly understood in their original contexts, this may hold important significance for our understanding of the early history of ancient Mesopotamia.

1. Seal Type A on Bullae in the Cornell Collections

In his introduction, Monaco states that CUSAS 21, 1 “contains a series of holes that were filled with glue, probably by the looters. Two of them may represent string holes, which suggests that the bulla was used as a tag to be attached to a container. Although conical bullae with a hole through them, to be used as tags, are common in the second Millennium BC, no parallels with archaic, conical bulla are presently available, the most similar object being MS 5113, a spindle-shaped bulla, dated to the Preliterate period, with a hole through it as well” (2014: 2, n. 7). All the bullae bear seal impressions, and “[w]ith the exception of no. 34 in the volume, whose seal impression shows a scene of ‘presentation to gods’ typical of the Old Akkadian period, all the remaining 33 spherical bullae bear fourth-millennium BC seal impressions. The surfaces of the bullae are completely covered with the impressions of one to three different seals. None of the bullae bears the impression of calculi on its surface” (Monaco 2014: 2).

In total eleven (A to K) types of seal impression can be reconstructed from these clay bullae (Monaco 2014: 9; 159-160), and possibly more as in the case of bulla 07 no drawing is possible. Among these the composite drawing of Seal Type A can be described as portraying “[o]ne rampant lion and four ruminants between rosettes with 5 lobes and other ornamental elements” (Monaco 2014: 9). Impressions of this seal are found on bullae Nos. 06, 19, 21, and 30 in the volume, all spherical in size. In the cases of bullae 06, 19 and 30 only the seal in question is applied while in the case of bulla 21 the seal was applied together with Seal Type C, which depicts “a man holding the beard of two deer, with one of them facing a lion&rdquo. Seal Type C was found on bullae Nos. 02, 03, 12, 15, 18, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29 (Monaco 2014: 9; 159). In several cases (Nos. 02, 26, 27, 28, 29), Seal Type C is used in combination with Seal Type D, thus further proving the contemporaneousness of these bullae on which the same group of seals (Types A to G) were apparently applied. Seal Types I, K, J and H found on bullae 01, 05, 16, and 34 may date to a different period than the first group (Table I).

The size of the seal that was behind Seal Type A cannot be precise but in relative terms its height would be no less than 4 centimeters judged by its appearance on bullae 06, 19, 21, and 30 whose sizes are measurable (Monaco 2014: 18-19). As to the dating of these bullae and the seals used to seal them, in a footnote to the seal impressions Monaco reports that “Rudolf H. Mayr, who gratefully provided the composite drawings of most of the bullae, suggested that the seals types A to G may belong to the ED period, in consideration of their themes”. However, Monaco continues that in his view, “themes typical of the ED period, such as the ‘butcher deity,’ ‘bull man,’ or ’cockscomb’ protecting, or stabbing ruminants are not present. On the contrary, the themes of ‘rampant lions,’ ‘processions of men and ruminants,’ ‘lions with crossing tails,’ and similar themes are all typical of the fourth millennium BC (preliterate to Uruk III)” (Monaco 2014: 9 n. 22). Therefore, except for bulla 34 mentioned above with a recognizably Old Akkadian seal impression, Monaco assigned dates to all the other bullae with their seals as “4 Mill.” in his catalogue (Monaco 2014: 18-19).

2. The Seal of the Little Princess in Context

Woolley (1934b: 162-164) describes the tomb PG 1068, in which the seal of the Little Princess was discovered, in the following way (Fig. 1): “The grave was a small one. The long sides of the shaft had been lined at the bottom with plano-convex mud bricks which formed a substitute for a wooden coffin; the space left between them was 1.25 m. long and 0.50 m. wide; nothing was found to show the nature of the roof, but probably it had been of wood.” The seal was found by the chest of the buried little princess: “By the shoulder there were (14), (15) two gold pins with lapis heads, of Type 1, less than half the usual length, U.11552-3; by them was (16) a lapis-lazuli cylinder seal, U.11554, PI. 198. On the head there were three wreaths; over the forehead came one of minute gold ‘beech-leaves’ strung on a double chain of lapis ball beads, U.11557; below this but higher up on the head was a wreath of very small gold ring pendants strung on a triple chain of lapis and carnelian beads, U.11558; higher up still was a wreath of lapis, gold, and carnelian pear-shaped pendants strung on a manifold band of minute beads held in order by gold bar spacers, U.11559.”

Fig. 1: PG/1068. (Pl. 58) The Grave of the Little Princess (Woolley 1934b: 162-164)

The lapis lazuli seal U. 11554, measuring “l. 0.024 m., d. 0.011 m.” (Woolley 1934b: 571), is unique among the lapis lazuli seals from the Royal Cemetery. Nowhere else in the entire corpus do we find the rosette sign appearing together with a contest scene on the same seal (Woolley 1934a: Pls. 192-216). The so-called contest scene is usually, though not always, associated with male members of the elite groups (Gansell 2007: 10). At the same time it is beyond doubt that a little girl was buried in PG 1068 as Vogel reminds us that: “zwei kleine Silbergefäße und einen kleinen goldenen Becher bei sich, “the proper table utensils of a child”, wie Leonhard Woolley, der Ausgräber, bemerkt. Auch den Schmuck des Mädchens, angefangenen von seinen goldenen Kleidernadeln bis hin zu den drei goldenen Haarkränzen, die auf seinem her entsprechen diese Artefakte aber exakt den Kleidernadeln und Haarkränzen sozial privilegierter erwachsener Frauen“ (Vogel 2014: 82). In terms of the interpretational perspectives of seals including age, gender and privilege, the seal of the little princess appears unique as well (Gansell 2007: 10-12).

3. Important Consequences of the Connection

The size of the seal of the Little Princess agrees with most of the seals used during the 3rd millennium BC, which are generally very small, 2-3 cm long, while only the exceptional ones, such as the royal seals, are large (email communication with Giacomo Benati). The dating of the seal is quite straightforward as it is discovered in situ, so that the dating of the tomb, PG 1068, can serve as the terminus ante quem. Benati agrees with Marchesi and Marchetti that the Royal Cemetery of Ur is mostly ED IIIb in date (Marchesi and Marchetti 2011), even if the earliest group of burials may be late ED IIIa or transitional (ED IIIa/b). In Nissen’s view, the stratigraphic position of the Little Princess’ grave, PG 1068, and its structure is similar to PG 755 for example, pointing towards a late phase within the cemetery sequence (Nissen 1966: Pl. 27, Profil K, and Pl. 40). Benati is confident in dating PG 1068 to the ED IIIb Period.

With regard to the style of the seal, Benati explains that “the iconography may have been introduced during the Fara period but we know it remained in use later on” (email communication with Giacomo Benati). This is in general agreement with the chronology followed by Rohn (2011) and in line with Mayr’s view reported by Monaco (2014: 9). The seal of the Little Princess is therefore most likely to be dated close to the end of the Early Dynastic Period, and accordingly the dating of Seal Type A on the Cornell bullae and subsequently the bullae should not be dated to much earlier. This dating is also suggested by the attestation the Old Akkadian iconography of Seal Type H, however indirect that evidence may be. The iconographic connection between Seal Type A on the Cornell bullae and the seal of the Little Princess, in the context of this relatively secure dating at least of the latter, is important both for the study of clay bullae in Mesopotamia, often associated with the question of the origin of writing (Woods 2010: 46), and for the interpretation of the Royal Cemetery during its late phases (Nissen 1966; Pollock 1985; Marchesi 2004).

In light of this possible new dating of the Cornell bullae to the historical periods, substantially later than the 4th Millennium date given by Monaco, and within a literate and historical context, a separate treatment of the bullae with considerations of the calculi contained in them and with the seals applied to them is warranted. In my forthcoming study Clay Bullae after the Invention of Writing I hope to address the use of clay bullae in the historical periods of Mesopotamia (see for now Woods 2010: 46-47 with literature). In relation to the Royal Cemetery, the iconographic connection between Seal Type A and the seal of the Little Princess also warrants a serious investigation into the historical context of the use of the Royal Cemetery in its late phase and the identity of the Little Princess in particular. In another study on Who Was the Little Princess in the Royal Cemetery of Ur I will pursue this thread in order to explore the historical context behind the unique seal of the Little Princess, its rosette sign and its apparent similarity to Seal Type A from the clay bullae, though the sizes of the seals are clearly different (Fig. 2). For the time being, some external information on the possible provenance of the bullae may prove meaningful.


Fig. 2: The Seal of the Little Princess (Woolley 1934a: Pl. 198) and Seal Type A (Monaco 2014: 159) from the Cornell Bullae.

The bullae published by Monaco are unprovenanced. David I. Owen, the curator of the Cornell University Collections, spoke of the bullae that they can “probably be associated with previously published bullae but we cannot know for sure” in an email to the present author dated 7 Mar 2015. “Maybe more studies of the seal impressions will provide a clue”, Owen suggests. In order that the provenance be settled, more information will be needed (see for now Abusch 1981; Delougaz and Kantor 1996; Alizadeh 2008). For the time being it may be pointed out that, based on information provided by reports after the breakout of the Iraqi War, al-Muqayyar the site of ancient Ur, has as a rare case successfully escaped looting (Curtis et al. 2008; Taylor 2011). If this can be a meaning clue to the provenance of the bullae, their provenance would have to be sought elsewhere than the city of Ur.


Table 1: Seal Impressions from the Clay Bullae in the Cornell Collections


SQLSTATE[42S02]: Base table or view not found: 1146 Table 'cdlndb.abbr' doesn't exist
ISSN 1546-6566    © Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative | Archival: 2015-07-15