JIAAW, Wagner Collection
Cylinder seals are small cylindrical objects carved with images and text and meant to be rolled in soft clay to leave an impression of the design. Like this cylinder seal , many were made of stone, but they could also be made from ivory, bone, shell, metal, glass, or ceramic. Many had a hole through the center so they could be worn as a necklace or on a pin – perhaps to keep them close at hand or as a decorative or protective amulet.
The first cylinder seals were probably used about 5,000 years ago in the Near East, around the time writing was invented. They were often used like a signature – rolled onto a clay tablet that already had writing on it (they’ve been found on documents ranging from letters, to receipts, to treaties) – or as a seal on a door or storage jar to announce ownership and ensure there was no unauthorized access to the space or container.
Because these seals were usually made from sturdy material, many of them have remained completely intact even though their use and production dropped off rapidly once papyrus and parchment started to replace clay as the preferred writing material.
-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator
Learn more about cylinder seals and see other examples: