Sealing Our History: Ancient Seals with Young Collectors

You might see a small item at an antique sale or as part of an antique collection and wonder about its significance. What is so special about the small piece in front of you, as is true of so many antiques, is that it tells the story of a people gone by and a culture that is no more. And it typically holds the secrets to many of their practices and even to some of their beliefs.

One such example is the ancient seal. At Phoenix Ancient Art, we have an entire collection of Ancient Seals, and we are highlighting them this month in our Young Collectors gallery in Geneva. Seals were used in the earliest of civilizations and are considered important by archeologists and art historians. In ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, they had carved or engraved cylinder seals that were made of stone or other materials. These were rolled along to create an impression on clay and were used as labels to mark goods and to communicate ownership. They were often hollow and are assumed to have been worn on a string or chain around the neck.

Seals in Ancient Greece and Rome date back to the 3rd millennium BC and were produced in the Aegean islands and mainland Greece. They were typically formed of soft stone or ivory. By the Late Bronze Age there were seal rings and more developed seals. The more elaborately engraved seals were certainly a sign of luxury and wealth and were used by the upper class in society.

A few examples from our collection illustrate how unique and diverse the use of seals was. The Compartmented Seal with a Suspension Ring includes a circular seal and a perfectly symmetrical internal decoration that includes circles around a cross. This item would have been for personal use and would have dangled from a wrist or a belt. Bronze compartmented seals of this sort were particularly seen in ancient Bacteria (modern-day Afghanistan) and were quite rare.

Another fascinating seal that we are showing this month is a seal in the shape of a stylized pig. It was carved in Near Eastern Sumerian culture around the 4th millennium BC from limestone. It has a piercing in it and was intended to be worn as a pendant. The flat lower part of the pig has the seal of the owner and his goods on it, an unusual find. Mesopotamian artists of the time were well known for creating imagery of animals including bears, monkeys, vultures, fish, frogs and others. Pigs were rarer and that makes this piece of particular interest in the modern day.

The action of authenticating and stamping your property was a fundamental step in the history of ancient societies. It shows an understanding of ownership, a designation of property rights and a development of urbanism. It also shows the very beginnings of the birth of writing. For these reasons and so many others, the significance of the ancient seal cannot be underestimated. And we are honored to explore this piece of history through our Ancient Seals collection at Young Collectors by Phoenix Ancient Art.