A Four Thousand Year Old Signature

Object 47: A History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects

Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, based on artefacts in the British Museum and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as a series of 15 minute talks, captured the imagination of many people. The History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects is based on a similar concept, exploring the artefacts remaining in our Museum store. Object 47 has now been added to the series.

A tiny cylinder seal, just 3cm high, was used to sign the letters of a civil servant in Iraq over 4,000 years ago. Clay tablets were used for writing in Mesopotamia (the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that is now Iraq, Kuwait, parts of northern Saudia Arabia and eastern Syria) from 2,800 BC until about 500 AD. The Akkadian cuneiform script of Mesopotamia is thought to be the oldest writing system in the world. The letters were formed by pressing a wedge shaped stylus into wet clay, which then hardened to make an almost indestructible record.

The seal features an image of a male figure who is being led by the hand by a goddess; she is introducing him to a deified king who sits on a low cushioned stool. There is a goose in front of the king (perhaps about to be sacrificed) and a crescent and star above the king’s hand.

The Akkadian text identifies the seal’s owner as Inimanizi, son of Sheshkalla, who was an administrator in the Umma region around 2100-2000 BC. His daily work was recorded on clay tablets, which he then signed by rolling the cylinder seal across the damp clay to make an impression. Extraordinarily, one of the tablets that Inimanizi signed has survived and is now in Yale University’s Peabody Museum – a very rare match. The tablet tells us that Inimanizi was organising food supplies in the ancient city of Umma (southern Iraq).

The seal is made of serpentine stone and would have been engraved by a craftsman using only hand tools and without the benefit of any magnification technology. The two main languages written in cuneiform were Sumerian and Akkadian and script was used from the late fourth millennium BC and until the first century AD.

If you would like to learn more about ancient Mesopotamia you can visit the British Museum’s current exhibition, “I am Ashurbanipal”, which tells the story of this extraordinary ruler of the Assyrian empire who lived in the 7th Century BC. His library contained thousands of cuneiform tablets, including legal records, letters, literature and poetry, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Charterhouse has a collection of ten cylinder seals, which we are delighted to have shared with an international academic project: The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative aims to digitise an estimated 500,000 cuneiform tablets worldwide. Researchers visited Charterhouse earlier this year to record the cylinder seals, using specially designed equipment to take 3D scans of each seal. Their detailed images will enable scholars to study the seals and perhaps find more matches with cuneiform tablets.

Further Reading:

Ancient near Eastern Seals at Charterhouse, Author(s): P. R. S. Moorey and O. R. Gurney, Source: Iraq, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring, 1973), pp. 71-81. 
Published by: British Institute for the Study of Iraq, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4199953.

A structured light approach to imaging ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals: how efficient 3D imaging may facilitate corpuswide research
Jacob L. Dahl, Jonathon S. Hare, Kate Kelley, Kirk Martinez, and David Young.


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