Ancient Images

The oldest original art in the Princeton University Library dates back to the Akkadian Empire of southern Mesopotamia, ca. 2350–2150 BCE. It comes in the form of figural images incised into circular stone cylinder seals, sometimes accompanied by cuneiform writing. These were essentially roll tools, usually made with a hole drilled through the center of the cylinder to facilitate wearing it around the neck for portability. Over the course of several thousand years, such seals were used to make authoritative impressions in wet clay, which could serve, almost like an official signature, to authenticate cuneiform documents. They had other purposes as well. Nearly all of the Library’s seals are in the Manuscripts Division’s Stone Seals Collection (C0849), which contains 241 stone seals from Mesopotamia, Syria, and other areas. After more than four millennia, most of these stone cylinders are so well preserved that they can still be used to make clear images in a modeling clay, such as Plasticine, which can then be photographed under raking light to produce a digital image. One may also digitally photograph cylinder seals directly and reverse the image to produce something that looks like the impression that would have been made in clay. Either way, one brings alive for modern viewers the visual landscape, legends, and religious beliefs of the ancient peoples.

Below, for example, one can see such a modern impression made in clay from one of Princeton’s cylinder seals, a greenish Akkadian example (Stone Seals Collection, Garrett no. 4). Here is how the image has been described: “Contest scene involving eight figures. At the right are two lions, each held by a lahmu, a nude bearded hero, who grasps one of the lions’ hind legs and rests his own foot on the lion’s neck. To the left, a bison is held by a bearded human figure wearing a kilt and a fez-like headdress; behind the latter is a god who holds another figure, perhaps a bison or more likely a kusarikku, or bearded bull-man, in similar fashion. The proportions of the figures are in many places rather irregular; note in particular the left lahmu, whose head seems unusually small and whose left leg is completely out of proportion to the rest of his body.”

The seals are in three collections separately assembled and donated by generous Princeton donors: Moses Taylor Pyne (1855-1921), Class of 1877; Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Class of 1897; and Edward D. Balken (1874-1960), Class of 1897. The seals range in age from Sumerian and Akkadian examples of the 2nd and 3rd millennia BCE to Persian examples of the pre-Islamic Sassanian period. The stone seals are primarily cylinder seals and stamp seals carved from hematite, serpentine, steatite, chalcedony, chlorite, lapis lazuli, quartz, and other minerals, much of which was probably mined in ancient Persia. The seals are numbered as follows: Pyne, nos. 31-135; Garrett, nos. 1-49, 136-143; and Balken, nos. 1-77. In addition to stone seals, seal impressions can be found on some of the approximately 1,350 clay tablets in the Princeton Cuneiform Collection (C0848), the bulk dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III).

The finding aid is comprised of two unpublished preliminary listings: (1) Rudolf H. Mayr, “Preliminary Checklist of Stone Seals in the Princeton University Library”; and (2) Albrecht Goetze, “Mesopotamian Seals in the Collection of Robert Garrett.” Cyrus H. Gordon wrote several brief articles relating in whole or part to the Princeton collections: “Seals from Ancient Western Asia,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 12, no. 2 (1951), pp. 49-54; “Near Eastern Seals and Cuneiform Tablets,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 14, no. 1 (1952), pp. 45-46; “Near Eastern Seals in Princeton and Philadelphia,” Orientalia, new series, vol. 22, fasc. 3 (1953), pp. 242-50, plates 57-70. There is also one stone seal in the Scheide Library and a substantial collection of stone seals in the Princeton University Art Museum. For more information about the collection in the Manuscripts Division, contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, at

Seal impression (Princeton Stone Seal Collection, Garrett no. 4)