When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object.
BY MARGARET COOL ROOT, Curator of Greek and Near Eastern Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan
Favorite Artifact: Female with grain and symbols. Stone stamp seal. Late prehistoric period (4500–3800 BC). Tepe Giyan, Iran. KM 1991.3.74.
Why: First — this object is one of a large group collected at the site of Tepe Giyan by Ernst Herzfeld, a very famous and important archaeologist. Second — the imagery carved on the seal is really important in the history of visual art.
About Artifact: Images of power, cult, and cosmos were disseminated on large monuments and also on small portable objects such as cylinder and stamp seals. Seals bore scenes carved in the negative onto cylindrical or flat surfaces and then rolled or pressed into still-damp clay documents and tablets to yield infinitely reproducible possible renderings.
This stone stamp seal is one of the earliest examples of a particular and very resonant image of female fecundity in ancient Near Eastern art: an iconic motif of the female figure with limbs splayed to suggest sexual invitation, birthing, or both. She is flanked by sheaves of grain, symbols of abundance through the ages, representing the fertility of flocks, human families, and the earth itself, an image that reverberated throughout later seal traditions in the region for the next 3,500 years.
When viewing the seal, keep in mind that ancient seal carvers worked at a very small scale and had to create forms in the negative.
Background: Gods, rulers, regular mortals, and institutions all had seals. Seals carried status as emblems of personal identity and administrative authority, and they were used as signatures on contracts and/or official tablets. They also had magical properties to bring good luck or ward off evil. Often seals were passed down as heirlooms. By the same token, the special properties attached to seals meant that they were often buried with their owners or strewn as votive offerings in the brick work of important buildings.
People proudly wore pendant stamps and cylinder seals suspended around their necks or wrists or pinned to their clothing. The act of making an impression with one’s seal was a creative moment likened unto the force of the rising sun, as these words from the Hebrew book of Job 38:13–14 (Old Testament) suggest: “Have you taught the dawn to grasp the fringes of the earth … to bring up the horizon in relief as clay under a seal?”
Find It: In the ancient Near Eastern seal exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum. Enter the museum through the Maynard Street entrance, go straight by the Security Desk, and then turn right and right. The ancient Near Eastern seal exhibit case will be directly in front of you.
Learn More: The stamp seal described above is featured in Root’s 2005 book, This Fertile Land, available for purchase in our gift shop or online.