- Museum number
Black serpentine cylinder seal; contest scene of three separated groups- bearded sun-god with rays, standing sideways but with face turned in front, wearing a skirt and grasping a long-haired bull-man from behind by the hair and tail; the bull-man holds a mace in his left hand and grasps the sun-god's left arm. Antithetical group consisting of two-human-headed bulls in the centre (full-face) being protected by a bearded hero (full-face) naked except for a belt, and by a bearded hero who is wearing his hair in a bun, an outward flaring cap decorated with fluting, and a skirt. N.B the sun-god has replaced the lion as the bull-man's opponent.
- Production date
Length: 3.84 centimetres
Width: 2.50 centimetres
Depth: 2.37 centimetres (?)
- Curator's comments
- Draft entry for Palace Museum catalogue, 2006:
Ancient cylinder seals from Iraq
For over 8000 years in the Middle East people have used small purpose-made objects to seal packages, mark ownership, witness transactions or confirm signatures. The earliest of these seals were small square, rectangular or triangular stamps with geometric designs carved on the face with a small handle on the reverse which was perforated for suspension by a cord around the wrist or neck of the owner. At about 3,000 BC in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), these were replaced by cylindrical seals which carried longer and more complex figural compositions. Different stones were preferred at different periods, perhaps because of a combination of changing patterns of fashion, availability and drilling technologies. Harder stones were preferred as they were the least susceptible to wear but cheaper locally available materials such as clay were used by poorer individuals. The name of the owner was sometimes added on the seal but most are uninscribed. The seals are broadly datable according to their style, and there has been much research into their iconography. Seals are occasionally found in excavated graves, thus proving how they were worn. Unsurprisingly, owing to their attractive appearance they have also been widely collected.
Akkadian cylinder seal with contest scene
Height 3.84 cm, diameter 2.5 cm
This seal is one of the first to be acquired by the British Museum, and is recorded as early as 1791 as being formerly part of the large collection belonging to the English antiquarian Charles Townley (1737-1805). It dates to c. 2400-2200 BC, when a powerful new dynasty of Mesopotamian rulers conquered the Sumerian cities, founded a new capital somewhere in central Iraq at Agade (although the exact location of this city is still uncertain), and campaigned as far west as the Mediterranean sea. Akkadian now also replaced Sumerian as the official language of Mesopotamia. The title of Naram-Sin, the greatest of the Akkadian rulers, illustrates their power and self-esteem as he was the first ruler to entitle himself “King of the Four Quarters” of the World. The stone is black serpentine, which was very popular at this period for carving seals, and the scene is one of stylised contest between a sun-god, bull-men and hero figures. Scenes such as this typify one of the dramatic changes in style that this period introduced, with a deliberate emphasis on dynamic action and power.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2007 9 Mar-10 Jun, Beijing, The Palace Museum, 'Britain Meets the World: 1714-1830'
- Fair; chipped around bottom.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- For acquisition and inventory details for collection see G&R register volume II, p.167-8. The catalogue also states "this is one of the seals in the British Museum with the longest pedigree. It was already in the Townley Collection in 1791 (see Tassie) but Cullimore was wrong in attributing this seal to the Rich Collection.
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: 1814,0714.2 (registration number in G&R department)