Objects: M290abc, M276, M287abc, M229, and M270
JIAAW, Minassian Collection
This Virtual Vault post focuses on a subset of objects in the Joukowsky Institute’s collection whose origins have been the subject of debate amongst Joukowsky community members for some time. They are the pottery roundels that were given to the JIAAW as part of the Minassian Collection, consisting of round pieces of clay with designs etched onto their surfaces, as well as both negative and positive plaster impressions of the clay roundels. The roundels depict a wide range of designs and symbolic subjects, including animals, plants, and geometric shapes. While the Institute’s records attribute these roundels to 13th century Iran, similar objects have been found in many other ancient sites, with some having been used for entirely different purposes from one another.
Some of the earliest examples of clay molds come from Central Mexico during the Early Formative period (ca. 1800-1200 BCE), where they were used as decorative devices for embellishing clothing, ceramics, and even the person. Typically depicting abstract geometric designs and animal imagery, often in repeating patterns, these clay stamps have been found in ancient burial sites, indicating the meaningful cultural association attached to these objects. The practice of creating and using these clay stamps continued through to the early sixteenth century CE, as exemplified by the Aztec people’s wide use of stamps to apply ink to figurines, clothing, paper, and the body.
Aside from decoration, stamps in antiquity also served practical purposes. Lumps of clay pressed with seal markings, or bullae, originate from the Seleucid period in Iran (306 – c.150 BCE). Bullae were used to shut jars, doors, and baskets, and were designed to prevent tampering with the contents inside.
Cylinder seals could be used to impress intricate designs onto bullae, or were covered with ink and rolled directly onto important documents.
Meanwhile, the ancient Romans used stamps for similar purposes of identification and proof of ownership, but instead of marking papers they marked bread. Since most bread was baked in communal ovens, Roman bakers placed custom bronze stamps on top of their dough so that they could differentiate finished loaves from one another.
Yet, the use of stamp-like objects in antiquity did not stop with bullae or bread making. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is home to a group of ceramic roundels similar to the ones here at the Joukowsky Institute that also once belonged to Kirkor Minassian. According to the Met, these roundels are actually bath scrapers, used in steamy bath houses called hammams to scrub away dead skin and eliminate impurities. Like the clay roundels in the Joukowsky Vault, these scrapers have been attributed to 12th-13th century Iran. While simpler designs could have served the same function of exfoliating the skin, perhaps the intricate illustrations of these bath scrapers says something about the personality of both the artisans who made them and the ancient people who bought and used them.
The exploration of these once mysterious pottery roundels reflects the natural place that curiosity and imagination have in archaeology. When placed next to one another, each of the objects mentioned in this post share key characteristics that can make them seem very similar to one another. Yet, a deeper look within each object’s cultural context demonstrates the many uses and purposes of stamp-like objects in antiquity despite their apparent similarities.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
Read more about ancient stamps and seals:
See other examples of stamps and bath scrapers: