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Essay: Cylinder seals in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1250 BC)

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The international period concurrent with the Late Bronze Age (or LBA, c. 1550-1250 BC) exhibited heightened commercial and political relations between various regions in the ancient Near East, the Levant, and the Aegean. Perhaps the most revealing testaments of the contact amongst these regions, apart from the Amarna Letters, are the glyptic works of this period, specifically cylinder seals. Not only do they give information about individuals, but the cylinder seals of the LBA, in their thematic material and stylization, provide evidence of interregional contact and cultural diffusion. Of interest is the influence of Mesopotamian traditions on Cypriot glyptic. Whereas the glyptic activity of Cyprus began much later (in the 2nd-millennium BC), Mesopotamia had a long-standing tradition of seal use that began in the 4th-millennium BC; as such, Mesopotamia’s glyptic repertoire contained a wide variety of motifs, styles, and techniques by the LBA which were passed down throughout following centuries. The iconography of Cypriot seals relies heavily on Near Eastern models which provided a foreign framework by which emerging Cypriot elites could form their own glyptic tradition. This reliance on Mesopotamian stylistic tradition is reflected in the transfer of Old Babylonian seal characteristics onto Syrian seals which were then adopted by Cyprus. In terms of thematic material, one of the main Mesopotamian influences seems to be that of animal scenes, especially combat and contest scenes. These scenes have been interpreted as having religious and amuletic meanings as well as signifying political loyalty to a king, one’s individual status, and state power. While meanings may have changed as symbols were transferred, much of the imagery remained in similar form on Cypriot seals but with adaptations based on local and Aegean traditions. While some scholars argue that Cypriot seals show more Minoan-Mycenaean than Mesopotamian influence in the LBA, others concur that Mesopotamian trends persisted. To that end, this paper will explore the extent to which Cypriot seals adopted and adapted Mesopotamian glyptic traditions as a means of signifying status, namely in terms of animal combat and contest scenes.

Cylinder seals originated arguably from modern-day Syria during the Late Neolithic period (c. 7600-6000C) but are linked to their popular use in the Middle and Late Uruk period (c. 3500 BC). These impression stamps, often complex in design, were used by everyone in Mesopotamian society, from royals to slaves, in business dealings and correspondence. Made of either semiprecious stone or metal, these seals were worn by the owner on a string of leather or another material around the neck or wrist or were simply affixed to clothing. The personal signatures on these seals guaranteed the authenticity of a document or parcel and legitimized dealings; thus, the rise of bureaucracy in the Late Uruk period required their use increasingly. Despite their small size (most seals were only 7-10 centimeters long), cylinder seals gave artists the opportunity to explore motifs which would impart the identity of a person unmistakably, as well as their occupation and way of life.

The need of and skill required to make cylinder seals placed seal-cutters in equally high demand and allotted them a certain respect in society. In accordance with their high demand, cylinder seals were treated like prized possessions. Loss of an individual’s seal could mean identity theft and thus such situations were treated like the modern loss of a credit card; according to Stephan Bertman, an owner of a lost seal would record the date and time of loss and then reported it to an official so that any further uses of the seal would be invalidated. Apart from personal identification and signature, other more practical functions of the seal included the prevention and restriction of access to containers or rooms or an indication of one’s authority or one’s specialization. According to Leonard Gorelick, the use of hard stones for the seals themselves and the symbolic representation on the seals evoked a combination of status and “an unspoken, symbolic pledge of allegiance to god and country which was particularly desirable in a society where conflict was common”. This idea, combined with the amuletic functions of cylinder seals, may explain the prevalence of particular themes in the traditional Mesopotamian glyptic repertoire, namely that of animal contest and combat scenes.

Mythical qualities attributed to animals on cylinder seals rendered the object itself an amuletic quality. Functioning as a sort of charm, seals of amuletic quality were viewed as apotropaic— warding off evil and keeping the owner from harm— or capable of bringing good fortune. While amuletic qualities are not limited to images of animals (carvings of scenes from legendary tales about the gods and demons could also function in this way), such depictions, in either naturalistic or stylized forms, are remarkable in their variety, power of representative quality, and stylistic formation which would be reinvented continuously through to the LBA. The iconography of LBA seals (and animal scenes more specifically), however, relied on older models in the Mesopotamian glyptic tradition. While not an extremely early example, one particular seal containing traditional styles and motifs dating before the LBA is an Old Babylonian cylinder seal of hematite that is now at the Metropolitan Museum (fig. 1). This particular seal shows two wild lions assaulting a central caprid (an animal belonging to the goat family) whose head is back-turned as a result of the violent attack. Adjacent to this scene is one of a winged-lion-griffin attacking a kneeling male figure. The animal combat scene is a long-standing tradition in Mesopotamian glyptic art. These scenes have been interpreted as a representation of strength over weakness or an embodiment of “strong opposing forces in nature”. The kneeling man may represent a foreigner, and therefore a potential enemy, who is overcome by a winged griffin. This, as juxtaposed with the locked combat of the two lions over the caprid, symbolizes the victory of fierce creatures over the weak intruder.

Lions became prevalent in Mesopotamian imagery during the Uruk period. Their depiction was meant to convey the power of the ruler and was important in protective settings, including both royal and ritual areas. According to E. Douglas Van Buren, the “strength, vigor, and beauty” of these beasts impressed the Mesopotamians so that “there was no period in which it was not represented in art, or compared figuratively with the superhuman qualities of some divinity”. Lions were sometimes given magical qualities (and ideas of danger or power), or were combined with other animals to create fantastical creatures. In the case of this Old Babylonian seal, the wings, bird talons, hindlegs, and feather-tail of the griffin are associated with creatures who carried divinities or who drove a deity’s chariot. This twofold creature was not one to be taken lightly; thus, its representation is fitting for the seal’s amuletic purpose as well as a show of royal prowess. But the lions which are represented with a more naturalistic anatomy exude equal qualities of protection and power. The caprid, who follows a Mesopotamian artistic tradition in its role as the prey of predatorial figures, may be an abstract symbol for the defeated party of royal hero-hunter-warriors or the weaker force in the conflict between the forces of nature. The reversal of the caprine’s head shows the attention of Mesopotamian artists to the type of violent encounters that took place in the wild, as attested by the naturalism of the creature’s straining neck made visible as it turns in a painful and awkward manner. As depicted in other forms of media, animal combat scenes featuring predatorial lions convey ideas of dominance, royal prowess, and protection. Such imagery, as extended to the surfaces of glyptic materials, is meant to not only emanate amuletic properties but perhaps also to emulate the symbolism of royal power, thereby making artistic associations with the individual owner’s status.

These symbols in conjunction with the hardness of the seal’s material (hematite) may also speak to the status of the attributed owner. Their status would have been enhanced or perhaps further emphasized by the seal’s imagery and the quality of the medium. During the Old Babylonian period, new centralized rule was instated by the First Dynasty of Babylonian kings. Manufacture was also improved, and lucrative trade was taking place between the Old Assyrian trading colony in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. It is believed that both the hardness and the black color of the expensive material were associated with greater status; moreover, with improved manufacturing techniques, it was possible to achieve a more aesthetic as well as an enhanced finish and carving quality which added to the value of the seal. Seals such as the Old Babylonian seal of hematite were most likely owned by privileged individuals who were connected to the palace in some way; thus, the symbols on the seal may be connected to the power of the state as well as the prestige of the individual owner. The quality of material and the symbols of power and protection exhibited on the Old Babylonian seal are the types of themes from the Mesopotamian repertoire that would not only be passed down to Mesopotamian artisans but were also transferred elsewhere during the Late Bronze Age to Cyprus, where issues like the show of one’s status were important to the emerging elite class.

It is during the beginning of the Late Cypriot period (or LC, c. 1550-1050 BC) that Cyprus was reintroduced into the international sphere after a period of isolation. Similar to places like Ugarit, Cyprus had been a long-time point of intersection for cultural and political influences coming from Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, and the Aegean but the intensity of their interaction varied in different periods. The island appears to have remained in contact with the outside world through to the Late Chalcolithic period (specifically the Philia phase which spanned from 2500-2300 BC), but a lack of imported metal objects points to the decline of their participance in the network by the Early Cypriot period (c. 2300 BC). Simultaneously, Cyprus in the late 3rd-millennium “saw a decline in authoritative structures and settlement contraction and dispersal” in Northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Levant. These drastic conditions caused major changes to interregional trade and politics which may have led to the ultimate decline of the Anatolian Trade Network. According to Vassos Karageorghis, a new period of peace in the Eastern Mediterranean ensued after the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt and replaced with the Egyptian rulers of 18th Dynasty (c. 1550-1290). Records of Thutmose III show that Cyprus (or “Asi”) was annexed by Egypt; consequently, Cyprus developed trade both with the ancient Near East and the Aegean.

Evidence in the form of Egyptian and Syro-Palestinian pottery, ivory objects, and Babylonian, Syrian, and Syro-Mitannian cylinder seals (each of which were found in some number in graves), concurrent with an increasing demand for Cypriot copper, indicate that Cyprus in LCI had returned to maritime trade networks with the outside world. Now that the peoples surrounding them had acquired peace, Cyprus was in a place to gain prosperity and develop their own homogenous cultural traditions by 1550 BC. But the various grave goods seem to reflect an elitist desire to procure foreign luxury goods and to replicate the “politico-religious iconography” of neighboring elites as a means of showing their status and further distinguishing themselves from lower classes of Cypriots. It has been suggested that the increasing practice of metallurgy caused a shift from egalitarianism to a more stratified social organization, where elites monopolized the port cities as well as the copper sources and lower classes worked either within manufacturing districts, in the mines, or in the fields. In this case, the increase of prestige displays among the Cypriot elite would seem to be connected to the island’s expanding prominence as a copper source and the resulting affluence acquired from copper trade.

The new “peace” seemed to allow for the development of urban communities and the growth of Cypriot harbor towns. These areas were important for international exchange. Most of these harbor towns sprouted up along the south coast of the island. It is understood that because these towns, which used for export, were located in the south that there must have been some agreement made for the allocation of the supply of copper ore quarried from faraway mining areas. Priscilla Schuster Keswani attributes this to various social traditions, one being that large copper-consuming coastal communities such as Lapithos and the distant supplying communities had a relationship based on “kinship, affinal ties, and interpersonal exchange partnerships”; these were also the “same social networks [that] the founders of LC coastal centers relied upon initially to obtain copper for overseas trade”. Keswani connects this trend with social changes that are reflected in the stratification of burial and ritual practices during the Early-Middle Cypriot Bronze periods. Ideological concerns, particularly concerning the show of one’s status, were represented in an increase of both lavishness and copper consumption within various communities and their funerary displays; in fact, a large number of the metal goods in Cypriot tombs were created and used in ritualistic contexts to be looked at in awe, coveted, and copied by other attendants before being buried with the owner. As such, emergent elites in urban communities during the LC period took advantage of previously-established networking relationships, which acted as a stimulant for further copper production. Also, as these privileged peoples appear to have monopolized both local and long-distance exchanges of copper in the LC period, another incentive for the production of copper and a valuable source of income, was the demand for copper in the Near East, Egypt, and the Aegean.

Cyprus’ reconnection with the outside world and its growing reputation as a copper resource began in the context of the early- to mid-2nd-millennium BC. Documents testify to the growing demand for Cypriot copper. Economic texts of Zimrilim, the last ruler of Mari’s great emporium, chronicle the import of expensive stones and tin from the east and copper from “Alashiya”, which is understood to mean Cyprus; these goods were then transported westward to coastal sites like Ugarit before reaching the markets of the Mediterranean. The validity of these ancient texts is confirmed by the aforementioned archaeological finds. Cypriot pottery has also been found in the Levant, providing further evidence for the island’s recommenced participation in maritime trade. The pottery also seems to indicate that Cyprus exported more than copper— goods like oil, resin, and wine were likely transported in these vessels.
Its position as a provider of copper to its eastern neighbors rendered Cyprus a prominent role in trade throughout the LBA, which, again, was important for the emerging urban elites. In terms of the high demand of copper amongst its eastern neighbors, environmental factors played a large part in the need for the material in the ancient Near East. For places where agriculture and animal rearing failed to yield much of a surplus, for example, palace economies relied profoundly upon commerce and craftsmanship; this is true for places like Carchemish, Byblos, Tyre, Aleppo, and Ugarit. Of the upmost importance were textiles and bronze. Wool was produced and then dyed in purple by way of Mediterranean mollusks to increase the material’s value. Because of imports of copper from Cyprus, the production of bronze was highly developed in these locations and products were consistently exported to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia. Manufactured products of these materials— fabrics as well as bronze objects and weapons— were sent as some of the main state tributes to the Hittites and Egyptians by the Syrian states and Levantines respectively; moreover, they were among many other high-quality gifts that were exchanged between royal courts.

The Cypriot elites gained a further advantage as threats to the old sociopolitical system took place in the ancient Near East beginning in the 14th-century BC. One such phenomenon was typical of cities like Ugarit where commercial activities became more important than military services to a state. Merchants who were once so-called “commercial agents” working on behalf of the palace would embark on their journeys to retrieve distant goods with a grant; in the 14th-century BC, though, these same merchants combined these same activities with others on the side like interest loans to increase their personal wealth (at the palace’s expense). This made them more like self-employed merchants as opposed to workers of the palace. Ugarit, who had privileged relations with Cyprus, as well as the entire Syro-Levantine coast and Cicilia, was a crucial Syrian port that gave access to the Hittite realm, Egyptian Delta, and the island of Crete. Its geographic position as a port in the Northern Levant made it a major trade center between the major powers of the region, so that even its political and military indifference did not deter the interests of the Hittites and the Assyrians from its wealth of various luxury goods. Similar to Ugarit, Cyprus’ insularity allowed for a degree of political neutrality between the rivalling great powers (namely the Hittite-Egyptian conflict), which may have also allowed for its “market potential” and increasing urbanization. This point of international exchange was also important for Cyprus, not just in terms of its export of copper, but because it also gave Cypriot elites the chance to obtain highly-desired foreign luxury items from Egypt, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia.
It is within this context that cylinder seals appear on Cyprus. The island’s reentry into the long-distance commercial networks of its neighbors as well as the increasing social stratification on the island itself corresponded with the appearance of cylinder seals. While seals from Mesopotamia and Syria had been transported to the island beginning in the 17th-century BC, the Cypriots began creating and using their own seals in the 15th-century BC. Many of these older seals were passed down for generations as heirlooms before being deposited in LC gravesites (like at Enkomi). Having no glyptic tradition of their own at this point, artisans referred to the imported seals for motifs and techniques but gradually included their own designs, thereby exhibiting a unique form of eclecticism in their seals. As was the case for the earlier use of Mesopotamian seals beginning in the 4th-millennium BC, Cypriot seals took on a variety of functions: they were administrative tools for securing doors and containers, marked documents of transactions, and were worn as jewelry, their materials and imagery displaying the prestige of the owner. The show of status, which was important for the emerging Cypriot elites of coastal communities, was reinforced by the seals’ raw materials which were primarily imported from abroad as well as by the foreign themes which were namely influenced by Mesopotamian glyptic.

One important source of LBA cylinder seals is a seal collection at Thebes. Found in a wooden box among a large hoard in northern Greece, these seals serve as a testament to the true internationalism of this period. Seals included in this collection come from Mesopotamia, Syria, Hittite Anatolia, and Cyprus. As confirmed by this collection, which was found in a Mycenaean palace workshop, as well as the Ulu Burun shipwreck (another source of LBA luxury goods that includes cylinder seals from Mesopotamia and copper ingots form Cyprus), the Aegean also had a desire for such materials including lapis lazuli glyptic. It also confirms that the Cypriots had firsthand examples of foreign royal glyptic imagery. Of the seals in the Theban collection, Cyprus has been identified as one of the centers of transfer for lapis lazuli seals, as well as those that are unfinished and recut.

A particular seal found in this hoard is attributed to “Cypro-Aegean” manufacture but its animal combat scene shows influence from the ancient Near East with Cypriot adaptation (fig. 2). Its main scene contains the theme of a hero-lion attack and domination, a reoccurring theme in the Mesopotamian tradition since the Uruk period. Unlike conventional Mesopotamian composition, though, the human-hero figure and their feline enemy lift their left feet off of the groundline as they engage in combat; a stricter adherence to the groundline (as exhibited in the Old Babylonian seal) is more fitting with Mesopotamian tradition. Also of note is the plethora of fillers (of chiefly Aegean imagery, including what looks like an apotropaic Gorgon head and a small-scale lion) in the field, which overwhelm the background of the main scene. This differs from the relatively empty background of the Old Babylonian seal, barring the apotropaic fly in the field. Nonetheless, the overall syntax and thematic material of the Cypriot seal’s main scene suggest a shadowing of Mesopotamian imagery. The fierce toe-to-toe combat of the human-hero and the lion as well as the attack of the mythical winged creature (possibly part-eagle, part-serpent, and/or part-lion) on the upright antelope recall the animal combat scenes of its Mesopotamian neighbors’ glyptic traditions.

These symbols of power are fitting for this age, as the LBA great powers and other connected regions shared a common diplomatic language showing themselves as either each other’s equals or as the superior of another state (as reflected in the Amarna Letters). Also of significance is the material: lapis lazuli had been long-associated with “power and divine favor” in Mesopotamia. During the age of diplomacy in the LBA, lapis lazuli, perhaps with similar associations, was desired not only by the Near East and Egypt but also the Eastern Mediterranean. The integration of local imagery with these Near Eastern themes reflect an acceptance of foreign expressions of power that are connected to this age of interregional commercial activity and diplomacy. This “Cypro-Aegean” seal reflects not only Eastern Mediterranean involvement in the system of the great powers but a parallel artistic transformation reflecting their participation during this age. For Cypriot elites, the readiness to adopt and adapt to foreign traditions may be connected to their important role in the international copper trade for bronze production; not only do their seals give them a place in the record of various seals from different regions, but it showed off their connection to the outside world to Cypriot locals who could not make similar claims.

Such implications are also conveyed in a hematite seal of the Yale Babylonian Collection in New Haven (fig. 3). Believed to come from Latakia, a Syrian port that lies about six miles south of Ugarit, this seal features Mesopotamian and Minoan elements that are almost inextricable from one another. The central theme is one of animal combat: two lions, each standing upright on a single hind leg while the other is raised parallel to the groundline, attack a stag whose head is back-turned and who stands on all four of its legs. Similar to the Theban “Cypro-Aegean” seal, the field contains various fillers, including hands and rosettes. Above the central scene is an Imdugud figure, an eagle- or lion-headed bird of Mesopotamian tradition, forming the top point of the pyramidal structure. An emblematic figure of the Sumerian storm god Ningirsu, the Imdugud personifies storms as its outspread wings raise storm clouds and from its lion’s mouth lets out a thunderous roar. Popular images of the Imdugud from the Early Dynastic III period, like the Silver Vase of Enmetena or the Copper Frieze of the Ninhursag Temple, depict lions, goats, deer, and oxen in the creature’s claws. This is thought to connote the dominance of supernatural forces over nature as well as the blurring of the nature-culture divide. Moreover, the Imdugud’s inclusion in these royal artworks is significant as the objects are also votive and were employed in the contexts of offering and supplication.

The application of the Imdugud symbol on this “Cypro-Aegean” seal seems to connote those same ideas of power and protection over the natural affairs of the world. While it clutches no creature in its claws, the powerful hybrid bird is the uppermost figure dominating both the central combat scene and the secondary images in the field: goats in combat with entwined necks, a horned animal nursing her offspring, and a lioness suckling her cub. In Cypriot culture, the image’s association with the Mesopotamian (as well as Syro-Levantine) pantheon and mythology were probably not translated in seals such as this one. Observing this royal imagery from the ancient Near East, however, the Cypriot elites (and the seal-cutters) may have associated such politico-religious iconography with high status. Perhaps more practically, the adoption of such foreign glyptic imagery served as another show of status for the emergent Cypriot elites among the other inhabitants of the island who did not have the same access to such materials. An obvious tension exists between the Near Eastern and Minoan elements of the engraving— individual self-contained scenes juxtaposing one another versus varied perspectives and changes in orientation respectively. Yet the thematic material of each individual scene and the undeniably-Mesopotamian iconography of this seal (that of the traditional combat scene and the Imdugud) show the predominant Cypriot desire for the imagery of that region for their own show of status. Just as animal themes were significant (in both number and meaning) in Mesopotamian royal glyptic repertoire, so were they the predominant subjects adopted and adapted by Cypriot elites for their glyptic imagery.


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