This stamp seal from the ancient Sumerian city of Larsa was carved in the shape of a pig, and was vertically pierced to be worn by its owner as a bracelet or pendant. It dates to the second millennium B.C.E. Larsa itself was located in the southern part of what is now modern-day Iraq, and was considered by ancient Mesopotamians to be one of the oldest cities in the world.
To the right of the seal is a copy of the impression created when the pig’s underside is pressed into a piece of soft clay — it appears to be an image of two leaping horned quadrupeds, perhaps ibexes. A seal impression like this would function as a signature in the ancient Near and Middle East. Seals themselves could also represent luxury items, especially when they were carved out of semi-precious stones like carnelian and alabaster, and were sometimes handed down from one generation to the next.
As the technique of seal creation and decoration progressed, stamp seals were eventually phased out in favor of cylinder seals. A cylinder seal makes a continuous pattern when rolled flat along an expanse of wet clay, and therefore presents a greater opportunity for the glyptic artist than a stamp seal. In both cases, the design had to be carved in reverse so that it would create a positive image when the seal was used to “sign” its owner’s name. In a way, this was an early form of typography!
A number of cylinder seals are on display in our “Nuzi and the Hurrians” exhibit. Additionally, one offshoot of our ongoing Assyrian Relief Casting Project has been a series of experiments involving these seals and modern casting techniques, which resulted in the precise reproduction of several seals in our collection. These reproduction seals are currently available in our gift shop at the Museum, and we advise you to check them out if you ever get tired of signing your name by hand!