Illustrated introduction to Ancient Persia, £8.99
Chalcedony cylinder seal
Achaemenid Persian empire, about 6th-4th century BC
From Hillah, near Babylon, Iraq
This grey-blue chalcedony seal, purchased in 1843, shows the varied foreign influences on the art of the Achaemenid Persian empire. The Persians had, at first, no clearly defined art of their own, but they made use of foreign craftsmen and expertise and welded the disparate traditions of their immense empire into a coherent and distinctive style. Greek and Egyptian motifs were particularly popular.
The design on this seal shows a Persian king in a standardized way, with a winged disc above lion-griffins. The disc is probably a representation of the royal Persian god Ahura-Mazda in aniconic (non-figurative) form. A subsidiary scene shows the Egyptian god Bes and probably replaced an intended inscription, as the vertical frame-lines indicate.
By the mid-first millennium BC, alphabetic Aramaic was increasingly written on leather or papyrus and came to replace cuneiform written on clay tablets. Stamp seals were more suitable for making impressions on lumps of clay covering the knotted twine around rolled documents, so the cylinder seal gradually declined in popularity. However, under the Achaemenid Persians there was a brief revival in the use of the cylinder seal and they produced some of the finest surviving examples. This is probably to be associated with the political reorganization of the empire under Darius I (521-486 BC).
D. Collon, First impressions: cylinder se (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)