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Mesopotamian cylinder seals

Mesopotamian cylinder seals are small cylinders, generally made of stone and pierced through from end to end so that they could be worn on a string or pin. The surface of the cylinder was carved in intaglio (cut into the stone) with a design, so that when rolled on clay the cylinder would leave a continuous impression of the design, reversed and in relief. Cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BC in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) or south-western Iran, and were used as an administrative tool, as jewellery and as magical amulets until around 300 BC. Cylinder seals were linked to the invention of cuneiform writing on clay, and when this spread to other areas of the Near East, the use of cylinder seals spread too.

The shape and size of cylinders seals, the type of material used and the designs carved into the surface varied according to period and area. Many ancient clay seal impressions have survived on tablets, envelopes and sealings: small pieces of clay applied to doors and containers, including jars, baskets, sacks, leather bags and wooden boxes. However, these are often incomplete. The designs on the many thousands of surviving cylinder seals are best studied from modern impressions or rollings of the seals on clay or some other soft material. It is these modern impressions which are here shown alongside the ancient cylinder seals.

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The British Museum's collections, £16.99

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