Mesopotamia is considered preeminent among the world’s earliest civilizations. Not only did this region give rise to the very first cities, but it endured for more than three thousand years and saw the invention and evolvement of urban institutions, the expansion of cultural exchange and the flowering of artistic expression. Uruk constitutes the most important settlement during the period to which it lends its name, which flourished from circa 4000-3000 BC. By around 3200 BC it was the largest settlement in Mesopotamia, if not the world, and by the close of the period had developed into a major economic and political centre of power.
The city of Uruk is exceptional not only because of the scale of urbanisaton to which it bore witness, and for its extraordinary works of art, but because it heralded the move towards a system of expression that allowed for the full representation of language; pictographs on clay tablets and fine stones, such as the present black hardstone example, are the precursors of later cuneiform writing, advanced by the city in circa 3200 BC and regarded as one of its most significant cultural contributions.
Stamp seals and cylinder seals were extremely personal objects indicative of social status and individual taste. As visible on the present piece, they were pierced vertically for suspension from a cord, likely hung around the owner’s neck or fastened among their personal effects – an integral component of everyday life. The design engraved onto the reverse of a seal pertained to the owner alone and its impression was stamped onto surfaces in place of a signature. These impressions acted as security systems, emblazoned on the sealings used to close doors and vessels. They also provided a solution to the urgent needs of economic administration in this cosmopolitan society; in order to record specific transactions, seals were used in conjunction with tokens or counters. The seals identified the participants in the transaction, and the counters the amounts of the commodities involved.
As well as functioning as an expression of the owner, these stamp seals also offer some insight into the broader themes important to the society of the period. In this case, animal iconography is dominant; the seal itself takes the form of a crouching lion, with an emphasized head and foreshortened body.
The art of Mesopotamia includes some of the most vivid images of animals found anywhere in the ancient world. Interactions with animals shaped the daily life of its inhabitants, who shepherded flocks, guarded against wild animals, and hunted for subsistence and sport. It was during the Uruk period, though, that the lion became especially prominent in the art of the region, particularly in imagery intended to evoke divinity, the power of rulers, and the fertility of the natural world. Images of lions also served an apotropaic function, erected in pairs to guard the routes leading to royal and religious spaces. Rulers used animal metaphors to expound their own virtues, describing themselves as lions fierce in combat and able to keep in check the ‘herd’ – their people.
The significance of the present stamp seal lies in the exciting glimpse it offers into the preferred iconography of the period and region, evocative of royal strength and abundance, whilst remaining an inherently personal and individualistic work of art. Its function reminds us of the economic importance of Uruk at this time and of the city’s lasting legacy in the development of the written word.
A black marble stamp seal amulet in the form of a lion’s head is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 1987.96.16, circa 3300-2900 BC). A stamp seal amulet very similar in style to the present, with large head and crouching, foreshortened body, but in pale green calcite, belongs to the British Museum, London (inv. 1929,0715.22, circa 3000-2900 BC).
J. Aruz and R. Wallenfels (eds), Art of the First Cities, The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003).
G. Stein, Rethinking World-Systems: Diasporas, Colonies, and Interaction in Uruk Mesopotamia (Arizona, 1999).
European Art Market, 1990s.
American Private Collection, acquired 1999.