Emblems of Authority

The Seals and Sealings from Hasanlu IVB

By: Michelle I. Marcus

Originally Published in 1989

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In the ancient Near East, small stamps and cylinders with carved or molded designs were used as emblems of status or author­ity. Their impressions on lumps of clay, called sealings, served to indicate ownership or rights over goods, and to control access to containers or storerooms. While seals and sealings have long held an artistic interest because of their designs, more recent studies have also begun to recognize the value of such artifacts as a means of recon­structing aspects of economy and society.

Most of the seals in museums and private collections today have been purchased and are without an ar­chaeological provenience. Isolated from their cultural context, such artifacts are of limited value, even for traditional studies of style. The 9th century Citadel of Hasanlu affords an unusual opportunity to study a corpus of seals and sealings with controlled stratigraphic con­texts, which provide them with a precise archaeological and cultural setting.

This report summarizes the re­sults of a multifaceted study of the seals and sealings (collectively re­ferred to as glyptic art) from Ha­sanlu LVB, incorporating stylistic, functional, and locational evidence. In addition to information on the local economy, it provides valuable insights into foreign relations be­tween northwest Iran and the major centers of the ancient Near East in the early 1st millennium B.C., especially with the powerful state of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia (Fig. 2). This kind of analysis is particularly important at Hasanlu, since the site has yielded virtually no written texts.

The Hasanlu Evidence

Excavations carried out between 1957 and 1974 recovered 105 seals and clay sealings from buildings and graves dating to Hasanlu period IVB. The sealings (31) are lumps of clay that were pressed when moist upon doors and containers, as the marks on the undersides indicate (Fig. 6). The exposed clay surface was then impressed with a seal and allowed to dry, leaving a firm but fragile symbol of rights over the contents of the room or container. In addition to such commodity seal­ings, several flattened, oval-shaped tabs of clay that likewise preserve seal impressions were found. The undersides of the tabs are smooth, showing no signs of having been pressed against another Figure 7—a seated figure with a bow receiving a standing attendant holding a vessel and towel(?)—is perhaps best known from the large-scale reliefs that decorated the palace of the Assyrians king Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) at Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia (Fig. 8). In the reliefs, however, the king is usually flanked by several attendants, with his bow held either before or behind him. Figure 7—a seated figure with a bow receiving a standing attendant holding a vessel and towel(?)—is perhaps best known from the large-scale reliefs that decorated the palace of the Assyrians king Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) at Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia (Fig. 8). In the reliefs, however, the king is usually flanked by several attendants, with his bow held either before or behind him.

In a discussion of the relationship between the local Hasanlu art style and Assyrian art, Irene Winter (1977) has argued convincingly for a model of emulation by which the Hasanlu elite attempted to absorb some of the status of the neigh­boring Assyrian empire. Related to this notion is the selection at Ha­sanlu of emblems of authority and power associated with Assyrian monuments—motifs dealing with military activity and the hunt, courtly activity in the processions, and the embellishment of elite public buildings with glazed wall tiles. The sealings support this analy­sis and add another courtly theme to the list: attendance of a seated figure. It is easy to explain the trans­mission of themes in Assyrian art to Hasanlu, since there were ample opportunities for interaction. We know from the royal annals, for example, that the Assyrians were engaged in military campaigns in northwestern Iran in the mid-9th century B.C., and that dignitaries from the northern Zagros areas were among the guests at the dedi­cation ceremonies of Assurnasirpars new capital at Nimrud around 860 B.C. (see Schneider, this issue). The residents at Hasanlu could have heard descriptions of the Assyrian reliefs or even viewed them first­hand. At the same time, small-scale objects bearing designs similar to those carved on the reliefs could have been brought to Hasanlu as diplomatic gifts or items of a mutual exchange—for example, ivories, textiles, metal objects, and cylinder seals (see below and Pigott, this issue).

Other elements in the local-style glyptic art point to North Syrian sources. Specifically, the Hasanlu lions with gaping mouths and prominent teeth (Figs. 4-7) are close in form to representations on con­temporary stone monuments from Carchemish and Tell Halaf, as well as on lion bowls imported to Ha-sank. At the same time, the overall decorative tendencies and liveliness of the representations in the local style relate to long-standing tradi­tions within western Iran—from decorated gold vessels from Marlik near the Caspian Sea to glazed tiles from Susa and seals from Susa and Choga Zanbil in southwestern Iran (Fig. 9; also see Winter, Fig. 8, this issue). Despite the wide range of visual source materials, the specific combination of elements in the Hasanlu local style—its unusual animal and figural styles, and the adoption of potent Neo-Assyrian and North Syrian themes—has been found so far only at this site. An intriguing aspect of the local-style seals and sealings is their distribution within the major burned buildings on the Citadel Mound and the information that this distribution provides on the function of such artifacts, as well as of the buildings themselves. While most of the seals from the site (closed circles, Fig. 10) were found directly on building floors, most of the sealings (closed triangles, Fig. 11) were discovered in collapsed debris that presumably fell from a second story. The sealings were found in three main clusters in two major buildings: the northeast and southeast areas of Burned Building II, and the southeast corner of Burned Building V. These findspots are significant because they coin­cide with the major discoveries of carved ivory plaques at the site, as well as other precious goods, such as gold jewelry and silver vessels (Muscarella 1980:2). Judging from the markings on the undersides, the sealings seem primarily to have secured the contents of small con­tainers, including reed baskets, wooden boxes, and leather bags, as well as doors (Fig. 8).

The distributional evidence there­fore suggests that sealed treasuries were originally located on the second stories of Burned Buildings II and V. Within these treasuries were stored precious goods in sealed containers. Thus the local-style seals and sealings offer a kind of information that other artifacts do not: a record of storage arrange­ments and implied economic and cultural transactions.

Other Iranian Seals

This category is made up of objects that may have been made at or near Hasanlu, but that do not conform to the local style as defined above. This group includes conoid­knob stamp seals and geometric-style cylindrical seal-beads.

Conoid-knob stamps are made of quartz composite material (Egyp­tian blue) which may be glazed or unglazed. The stamps have a trun­cated conical base, short indented stem with a perforation, and short conoid knob. Figure 12 represents one of seven examples of this stamp type from Hasanlu ITB. The de­signs on the seal face include an insect, birds, sun disks, and geo­metric designs.

Although the general form of these stamps has antecedents in 2nd millennium Anatolia, only a handful of 9th century parallels are known for both the shape and seal designs. One or two examples each are known from sites ranging from Surkh Dum in central western Iran to Tell Halaf in northern Syria (Schmidt, van Loon, and Curvers 1989; Oppenheim 1962).

Conoid-knob stamps are more numerous at Hasanlu than at any other site. Although frequency does not necessarily indicate local pro­duction, there are other hints that point in that direction. First, the form and details of a bird in one conoid-knob seal design have paral­lels on two local-style ivory plaques (Muscarella 1980:Nos. 160, 161). Second, several sealings from Ha­sanlu preserve impressions that could have been made by conoid­knob stamps: both the size and shape of the seal face and some of the designs are similar.

Nevertheless, the origin of this group of stamps is particularly difficult to determine, and the evidence for Iranian production of the conoid-knob stamps from Ha­sanlu is not conclusive. Until we at present, it has a bearing on the important question of whether Assyria controlled the trade routes to northwest Iran in the 9th century B.C., or whether there was indepen­dent access from the Levant east.

Neo-Assyrian Style Seals

The fourth stylistic group of seals from Hasanlu ITB has connections with Neo-Assyrian glyptic art. It is made up of at least 21 “linear-style” cylinder seals (Figs. 15, 16). At Hasanlu, as at contemporary sites such as Aggur and Nimrud in Assyria proper, linear-style seals are gener­ally manufactured of soft stones and were originally fitted with metal caps and suspension pins with a looped end. The style is charac­terized by a dependence on outline, with finely incised designs arranged in a single register. Typically such seals show archers shooting wild animals or mythological creatures, or monsters attacking smaller rumi­nants.

The presence of objects in Assyrian style has long been recog­nized among the finds from Ha­sanlu ITB. In addition to seals, they include ivory carvings and glazed wall tiles. To date, such goods at Hasanlu have been regarded as direct imports from the imperial centers in northern Mesopotamia. In the case of the seals, however, this assumption may be challenged.

When compared with excavated seals from Assyria proper, only six of the Hasanlu seals can be con­firmed as typical products of the latter region. Among these is the example shown in Figure 15. The theme and composition are stan­dard for central Assyria: a winged griffin attacks a kneeling wild ram whose head is turned in reverse; a palmette is set between them (Fig. 17). Also characteristic of Assyrian seals are the indications of the muscles and rib cage of the animals; the well-defined facial features; the form of the palmette and its short base of three horizontal lines; the eight-pointed star in the sky; the crescent moon; and the chevron border pattern.

In contrast, the majority of the linear-style seals from Hasanlu (15 of 21) consistently exhibit certain non-Assyrian features that suggest they were made outside of the imperial center (Fig. 16). Most notably, this seal group exhibits a marked tendency towards surface patterning and a liveliness of repre­sentation, features absent from the excavated central Assyrian products but common on seals assigned to the Iranian and local styles at Ha­sanlu. For instance, in Figure 16, the face of the archer is defined by horizontal incisions, and the stags body is divided into segmented parts marked by overall surface patterns, especially horizontal and vertical striations that do not con­form to the natural anatomy of the animal. When Assyrian seals show incisions on animal bodies (as they often do), they carefully follow the natural form of the animal to indi­cate the muscles or rib cage (Figs. 17,18), and in general do not present the same degree of elaborate overall patterning that marks a number of the Hasanlu seals. Another un­Assyrian characteristic of the seal in Figure 16 is the border of oblique hatching, and the carelessness by which elements from the main scene intrude into the borders and the omission of the archer’s feet al­together.

If some of the linear-style seals from Hasanlu were not produced in central Assyria, as the comparative evidence suggests, then where were they carved? While they could have been manufactured in an Assyrian province near the capital, the ten­dency towards surface patterning makes them most at home in or near Iran. In fact, as already mentioned, it is one of the hallmarks of the local art style of Hasanlu itself, as seen in glyptic art (Figs. 5,8), ivories (Figs. 3,4; see also Muscarella, Figs. 15-19, this issue), and metalwork: the Hasanlu silver beaker (Fig. 1) shows patterned garments on the human figures; animal bodies marked by Dur-Assur, or fortress of Assur (Grayson 1976:par. 566; see Schnei­der, this issue). From this informa­tion, we may assume the presence of Assyrian artisans to decorate the palace—and perhaps Assyrian seal-cutters to furnish seals for the local administration.

As Zamua was one of the areas in the western Zagros closest to As­syria, and it was a major population center from which radiated impor­tant routes to the north, south, and east, it is tempting to envisage artists trained in the major centers of Assyria coming into contact here with local styles or producing seals for customers who had acquired local tastes—a setting ripe for the production of some of the more decorative, unusual Assyrian-style seals from Hasanlu.

Also intriguing in this regard is the discovery at Hasanlu of an inscribed stone bowl that refers to the king of “the land of Idi,” a place name mentioned in Assyrian ac­counts of campaigns in Zamua (Levine 1974). Although it is not certain that the Idi on the bowl is the same place mentioned in the royal annals, this object may document the actual transmission of goods from Zamua to Hasanlu.

At the same time, turning farther to the south, there are among the recently published discoveries from Surkh Dum in modern Luristan linear-style seals showing the same attention to surface patterning as our provincial Assyrian group from Hasanlu (Schmidt, van Loon, and Curvers 1989). This evidence raises the possibility that similar goods were moving both north and south from a single source on the same trade route. Geographically, a town in Zamua or elsewhere in the north­western Zagros would fit into the proposed reconstruction.

Wherever they were produced, the provincial Assyrian-style seals from Hasanlu raise the possibility of otherwise unknown centers of artis­tic production in the northern Zagros during the early Iron Age. Particularly intriguing is the notion of an Assyrian workshop in the Zagros acting as an intermediary between the major political center (Assyria) and its hinterland in north-west Iran, a site, perhaps, where center-trained artists produced and distributed Assyrian-type seals that had nonetheless been affected by aesthetic predispositions native to the provincial area in which they lived. It remains to be determined whether the seal-cutters were As­syrians absorbing stylistic elements from Iran, or Iranians absorbing elements from Assyria. However, until far more rigorous criteria are developed within art history for attributing style to ethnicity, choos­ing between these two options may not be possible.

Symbols of Power

Still to be explained is the ques­tion of why Assyrian-type seals, whether products of the center or its provinces, were so desired at Hasanlu. They constitute about one-quarter of the entire glyptic assemblage from the site. Related to this issue is the need to explain the choice of themes in the local-style artwork. As discussed earlier, ob­jects done in local style sometimes portray subjects best known from the large-scale reliefs that decorated the palaces of the Neo-Assyrian kings, for instance, chariot scenes and more ceremonial images of the enthroned king with attendants. Just as the borrowing of Assyrian elements by local seal makers may best be explained in terms of the Hasanlu elite actively trying to absorb some of the prestige of the Assyrian imperial court, the acquisi­tion of other Assyrian-style objects such as the linear-style cylinder seals may indicate a desire to match the cultural status of the court.

Were our Assyrian-type cylinders actually used as seals at Ilasanlu, or were they collected solely as per­sonal ornaments for their prestige value? The first possibility is un­likely, given the absence of Assyrian-style seal impressions on any of the clay sealings from the site. Instead, as discussed above, local-style seals were mainly used for actual transactions, presumably the protection of containers or store­rooms from theft.

The distribution of seals at Ha­sanlu lends positive support to the use of Assyrian-style cylinders as ornaments. It has already been observed that while most of the dealings were discovered in second-story collapse, most of the seals were found directly on the building floors (Figs. 10, 11). Often the Assyrian-style seals were found beside skeletons of people caught in the burning buildings at the time of the destruction of the settlement. In some cases they were found lying near or behind the necks of in­dividuals, where they were prob­ably originally worn as ornaments. In at least two cases, a seal appears to have been suspended by its metal loop from a cast bronze lion pin found with it (see Pigott, Fig. 13b, this issue).

However they were worn, the Assyrian-style seals seem to have belonged to elite individuals, judging from the quantity of high-status goods found with the skeletons. For example, one seal was found beside a body wearing 17 copper/bronze bracelets and buttons with gold overlay. While it is not certain that the skeletons with seals represent local citizens, as opposed to foreign attackers, the abundance of associated jewelry does suggest a non-military status. There is evidence, then, to suggest that the Assyrian-style seals from Hasanlu—whether from Assyria proper or the provinces it controlled—were valued and worn as personal ornaments, presumably as signs of status, and were probably not intended to actually seal goods.

Reconstructing the Ancient Past

Owing to our knowledge of the stratigraphic contexts of the seals and sealings from Hasanlu ITB, it has been possible to combine a stylistic and iconographic analysis of the seal designs with a functional and locational analysis of the actual seals and sealings. Only such a multi­faceted approach, I would argue, can adequately deal with the complexities both of the local cultural history of the site and of the inter­connections between northwest Iran and the major centers of the Near East in the early 1st millen­nium B.C.

Although many questions remain unanswered, this analysis of the Hasanlu material has nevertheless served to generate hypotheses about the economic and social uses of these important artifacts at the settlement; the function of certain building areas; possible marginal places of artistic production in the Zagros; and patterns of exchange between northwest Iran and regions to the west and south. I have tried as well to better understand the rela­tionship in this period between the central power of Assyria and the lesser states of northwest Iran through the consumption of As­syrian seals and the incorporation of Assyrian themes into the local art style. On a more general level, it is hoped that the full investigation of the Hasanlu glyptic material serves to highlight the benefits of com­bining art historical, functional, and distributional studies in reconstructing the ancient past.

Cite This Article

Marcus, Michelle I.. "Emblems of Authority." Expedition Magazine 31, no. 2-3 (November, 1989): -. Accessed February 27, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/emblems-of-authority/


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