A note on cataloguing cylinder seals: including weight

CDLN 2018:1

Cuneiform Digital Library Notes (ISSN: 1546-6566)

Published on 2021-02-01

© Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

1. Introduction

A hallmark object of ancient Near Eastern civilizations, cylinder seals were used from the late 4th through the 1st millennium BC. Tens of thousands of seals are now known in modern collections (Wagensonner forthcoming[a]), but cylinder seals offer unique challenges for researchers wishing to most effectively catalogue, interpret, and present this part of the archaeological record. They are works of art in miniature, carved in intaglio on cylindrical surfaces: traditional photography fails to capture the carving in its entirety, while images of modern roll-outs in plaster or polymer clay can reveal the design remarkably well, but don't retain information on the colour and texture of the stone and how these may interplay with the incised designs. Our pilot project Seals and Their Impressions in the Ancient Near East (SIANE), has aimed to improve the capture and digital cataloguing of cylinder seals, in part by developing and testing a new technique for imaging seals using a structured light approach (Dahl et al. forthcoming) which captures 3D data representing the seal surface and carving. However another, quite basic, cataloguing practice newly adopted by the project is to weigh all cylinder seals as part of a more full physical record of each object.

This information has in fact not been included in any of the major published seals catalogues[1], yet such a simple addition could have several potential benefits to researchers. By comparison, a similarly numerous type of archaeological corpora—coins—routinely include the weight of each object in catalogues, for obvious reasons. Weight is not the only physical feature of seals that has been inconsistently documented in traditional print catalogues—for example, the tops and bottoms of seals (offering information on the shape of the drill-hole, and sometimes of further decoration) are not normally photographed unless an unusual feature is being highlighted. Large numbers of seals spread across public and private collections means that a comprehensive digital dataset, including the fullest capture possible of a seal's physical features would prove a valuable resource for comparative art historical and archaeological studies, including those focusing on material composition and production technology. Two examples below highlight how including the weight of seals may be useful.

2. The scale and dynamics of trade in precious stones

Seals were often made of semi-precious or precious stones imported to Mesopotamia and the Levant from surrounding regions. Long-distance trade and the import of foreign materials has been seen as a key civilizational dynamic in Mesopotamia. However, the scale at which this trade was being undertaken is poorly understood. A find of mostly unworked blocks of lapis lazuli totalling 37 kg at Ebla, from a store room with restricted access in palace G (Pinnock 1986, 2006) remains exceptional, but the scale of this collection can be correlated with the textual record (Archi 2017; and see the inventory of a “treasury” MS 2011 obverse col. ii 11-12, listing what appears to be two blocks of lapis lazuli, each ½ a cubit long and weighing a total of 2 talents). A few other rich finds of lapis lazuli seals and objects are known from the archaeological record in the Near East and the Aegean, with hoards in both Egypt and Boeotian Thebes consisting of seals originally carved in Mesopotamia (Porada 1981–2; Aruz 2009). In fact, Porada (1981–2) weighed all of the Kassite lapis lazuli seals and similar un-engraved cylinders from the spectacular group of 36 lapis lazuli cylinder seals and further lapis objects in a Mycenean building in Boeotian Thebes; finding these to total 496 grams—nearly one ancient mina—Porada suggested that they may have been sent by the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (who had plundered a Babylonian temple of Marduk where the seals had been dedicatory objects) as ‘a standard measure for gifts of this type' and part of the maintenance of trading relations with the Myceneans (1981–2: 70).

Of the estimated 50,000+ known cylinder seals in modern collections, how much in weight of various types of precious stone is represented? Such information could offer another orientation point for understanding the extent of interregional trade. Even though the objects in collections are only a select few of those originally made, various studies have provided models for estimating the original number of cylinder seals used by a given administration. For example, R. Mayr's unpublished study of the Ur III Umma seal impressions lists the total number of original seals found impressed on extant cuneiform documents from that city (c. 1100, see Mayr, forthcoming) improving our understanding of the size of the city administration.

One potentially fruitful angle is to trace changes in the frequency and size of cylinder seals made of different types of stones across periods. Some changes in stone choice across historical periods have been observed: for example, general observation and studies of select samples of seals suggest that haematite began being heavily used in the Old Babylonian period (Sax 1986; Feingold 2014: 13). Tanret has discussed the relationship between materials and types of seals during the Old Babylonian period (Tanret 2010). Sax, Collon, and Leese (1993) explored the shifting prevalence of materials within the British Museum collection (over 2,000 seals), drawing a number of conclusions, including that the Gutian invasions at the end of the Akkadian period may have disrupted the import of certain high-quality, hard stones. Expanding these types of studies beyond a single collections or periods could provide further insight[2], and the inclusion of seal weight would offer the chance to explore changes in stone use in more detail.

For example, can we observe that any particular material is used not just for fewer seals in certain periods, but perhaps for seals of more modest size? The data on weight and size may be correlated with other aspects of the seals: do certain types of motifs or certain materials appear as progressively smaller or thinner seals over time, perhaps suggesting re-carving? Many questions become more possible to explore with an electronically searchable database. The sample size of lapis lazuli seals in the Ashmolean museum collection (fig.1), despite being one of the larger seals collections, is too small to draw broader conclusions on the use of this stone for seals in the Near East—but to have this data available across collections would increase the potential for research on the scale and patterns of trade in lapis lazuli across Near Eastern history.

Publication number

Ashmolean Accession number



Weight (grams)

Dimensions (height x diameter in mm.)

Buch 93



“Post-Jemdet Nasr”/ Early Dynastic I

14.0 “remains of copper pin in bore”

60 x 9

Buch 133


unknown (bought Baghdad)

Early Dynastic


50 x 16

Buch 207


Kish (bought)

Early Dynastic


13 x 8

Buch 227



Early Dynastic


16.5 x 10 top broken

Buch 274





18.5 x 9

Buch 390

Bodleian Library




18 x 9

Buch 442





19.5 x 7.5

Buch 561



Late second millennium


27 x 12

Buch 630





48 x 18.5

Buch 659





15 x 8

Buch 672





27 x 13

Buch 676





19 x 10

Table 1: Weights for lapis lazuli seals in the Ashmolean museum collection.

3. Cultural heritage preservation

Cylinder seals are heavily collected items, and especially vulnerable to looting (Anon. 2015) or theft as demonstrated when around 5,000 seals were part of a targeted grab during the looting of the Iraqi national museum in 2003 (Bogdanos 2005; Gibson 2008). Around 6,000 objects from the museum have since been recovered, but George and Gibson (2008: 26) noted that “only a small number of cylinder seals” are among these objects returned to the museum. In association with their early appearance in antiquities markets and collections—for example, the Bibliothèque nationale de France acquired its first cylinder seals in the 1760's— a long tradition of sometimes high-quality forgery plagues the corpora of seals worldwide (Porada 1948: 158; Collon [Kist] 2003 estimates that around 10 percent of the Kist collection are forgeries). Forgeries have occasionally been made by simply attempting to make copies of other seals (see Porada 1948: no.1151 and comments). Weighing all seals contributes to the production of a data-matrix, including information that can be used for the identification of seals that may have been lost or looted. More generally, such a matrix could become a tool for both collection managers and anyone interested in protecting the shared world heritage represented by these objects.


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Archi, A. 2017. “Lapis lazuli and shells from Mari to Ebla”, in Ç. Maner, M. T. Horowitz, and A. S. Gilbert (eds), Overturning Certainties in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Festschrift in Honor of K. Aslıhan Yener. Leiden: Brill.

Aruz, J. 2009. “The art of exchange”, in J. Aruz, K. Benzel, and J. M. Evans (eds),  Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., 387–94. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bimson,  and D. Collon. 1982. “The materials of the seals”, in D. Collon (ed.), Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum, Cylinder Seals II. Akkadian, Post-Akkadian, Ur III Periods.

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Collon, D. 1982. Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals II: Akkadian, Post-Akkadian, Ur III Periods.

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—2006. “The raw lapis lazuli in the royal Palace G at Ebla. New evidence from the annexes of the throne room”, in M. E. Alberti, E. Ascalone, and L. Peyronel (eds), Weights in Context: Bronze Age Weighing Systems of Eastern Mediterranean. Chronology, Typology, Material and Archaeological Contexts. Proceedings of the International Colloquium. Rome 22nd–24th November 2004.

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—1981–2. “The cylinder seals found at Thebes in Boeotia”, Archiv für Orientforschung 28, 1–70.

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[1] e.g. the British Museum volumes (Wiseman 1962; Collon 1982, 1986; Porada et al 2016), volumes including seals in the Louvre and Bibliothèque nationale de France (Delaporte 1910, 1920, 1923; Amiet 1972); the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library (Porada 1948); seals from the Diyala now in the Baghdad museum, Philadelphia, and Chicago (Frankfort 1955); and others. However a few catalogues do include this information, such as Hammade 1994. Rare, irregular inclusion of the weight of seals is also recorded in the publication of seals from the Bibel und Orient collection (Keel-Leu and Tessier 2004).

[2] For example, Zettler (1987: 63) commented, in review of Cylinder Seals II (Collon 1982) in reference to the conclusions about choice of materials in the Akkadian through Ur III periods (Bimson and Sax that volume, and subsequently Sax, Collon, and Leese 1993), that higher numbers of Akkadian serpentine and Ur III chlorite seals could in fact relate to museum acquisition history, perhaps reflecting modern buyer's preferences (around half of the seals in the British Museum were purchased) than trends in ancient trade.