A seal is worth a thousand words

By Uzume Wijnsma

Anyone who is familiar with the NINO (Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten) knows how precious its collection of antiquities is. Ca. 3000 cuneiform tablets are stored in the institute – the largest collection of its kind in the Netherlands. One can also find a variety of seals, statuettes, and terracotta heads (et cetera) among its possessions. It is always exciting to open one of the drawers in the NINO vault to see what you can find among its tiny treasures. A few months ago, I did just that – and I found a few pieces that I immediately fell in love with.

The pieces I fell in love with are twenty-two small lumps of clay, nowadays known as LB 893 – 914. They are roughly triangular in shape. And none of them look particularly interesting at first sight. If one didn’t know any better, one could think that they were nothing more than tiny lumps of ancient mud. Or, as a friend of mine thought when I sent them a picture: a series of oddly shaped cookies. But I promise you they are more than that.

Image 1. The oddly shaped “cookies” from the NINO (LB 983 – 914).

The muddy triangles-cum-cookies are, in fact, bullae – a fancy word for inscribed or sealed tokens. If one holds the bullae under the lamplight, one can see traces of seals that were impressed into the clay many hundreds of years ago. The impressions in the NINO are particularly beautiful (if you ask me). One seal impression, for example, shows a lion whose jaws bite into the back of a tender stag. Another shows two men who are hunting a running boar. A third shows a man spearing another human being. Every image is vibrant and lively in its own specific way. And the style of the images indicates that they are Achaemenid in date (ca. 550 – 330 BC) – which probably explains why I, Achaemenid nerd, am so fond of them.

Image 2. A lion attacks a stag on a seal impression from LB 905. The photo stems from the article cited below.

I was fortunate enough to be able to study the seal impressions with Mark Garrison – expert of Achaemenid glyptic par excellence – ca. a week ago. We spent a rainy Saturday in an otherwise deserted NINO library, staring at the tiny images and trying to draw them as accurately as possible. A tail here, a nose there. A spear that drills into the back of a lion. A crown on that guy’s head. Hours and hours of looking at these wonderful pieces: drawing a line, erasing it, drawing it again, erasing it, trying it a third time – until you get it exactly right. It was difficult but lovely work. Copying an image by hand gives you an understanding of its details that a photograph just cannot. You begin to see every nook and cranny of a scene. Every tiny feature. Something that is indispensable, of course, for a correct interpretation of the image.

Image 3. Nothing’s better than drawing ancient seals on a rainy Saturday morning!

So where do these bullae come from? Well, we actually don’t really know. None of the pieces has a recorded find spot. That also applies to bullae in other collections: pieces of similar shape and with exactly the same seal impressions were found in collections in Germany, France and the USA. The NINO, with twenty-two different pieces, holds the largest single collection. But the original find must have consisted of more than forty tokens. What the bullae were used for remains equally obscure. It is possible that they used to seal papyrus rolls or storage devices. Or perhaps they served some independent administrative purpose of their own. As we lack an archaeological (or archival) context, we are left to guess. Frustrating as that is.

Image 4. Unfinished copy of seal RB 4: two men are attacking a lion, in distinctly Achaemenid style.

Whatever the original function of the bullae was, however, their seal impressions remain. And they are interesting in their own right. The images show us how people who lived ca. 2500 years ago imagined their own surroundings and society. They indicate what was important to them (ideologically or otherwise), and how they thought it should be represented. The seals, in other words, form tiny windows onto the world of the Achaemenid Empire. And they show us a world of dangerous animals, of royal hunting and of warfare.

To have that information preserved is treasure enough, I’d say. And to slightly paraphrase a cliché: a seal impression is worth a thousand words. Is it not? 😉

Bibliographical note:

The bullae from the NINO (and similar bullae from other collections) were published in 2004 by Wouter Henkelman, Charles Jones and Matthew Stolper. You can visit this link for their wonderful article: http://www.achemenet.com/pdf/arta/2004.001.pdf (with plenty of photographs; but, unfortunately, without modern drawings).

Do note that other specimens of the same corpus have popped up since then. The whereabouts of LB 914, for example, the twenty-second piece in the NINO, were unknown in 2004. But it is here now!

From Iran with love

By Uzume Wijnsma

It’s 6.30 AM. And instead of ignoring my alarm clock in bed, which I normally do at this hour, I’m standing outside looking at a barely visible piece of rock. It is located half-way up a mountain. And an ugly scaffold obscures most of it from view for the passers-by down below. Nevertheless, there I am – in the cold, camera in hand – waiting for the moment that the first rays of sunlight will illuminate it slightly. Now, I know that the light won’t help me to discern the cuneiform inscriptions that cover it – they are badly weathered – but it just might help me to see the figurative relief in better detail. If it does, then missing both my precious sleep and my breakfast will have been completely worth it. I am standing, after all, below one of my favorite rock reliefs from the entire ancient Near East: the monumental Bisitun inscription.

Figure 1. The Bisitun inscription, tucked away behind modern fences and scaffolds.

The Bisitun inscription was created by one of the first kings of the Achaemenid Empire – Darius I – to commemorate his seizure of the throne in 522 BC. It tells us about the court intrigues which preceded Darius’s rise to power, the empire-wide rebellions that broke out upon his coronation, and his brutal defeat of all of those rebellious “liar-kings” (which ranged from simply killing them, to mutilating their bodies and impaling them near capital cities). This alone renders the inscription extremely valuable to the study of the Achaemenid Empire. Additionally, because the inscription was written in three languages – Elamite, Old Persian and Babylonian – it was of essential importance to the decipherment of cuneiform in the nineteenth century. One often hears that it was the “Rosetta Stone” of the field of Assyriology. So, as a PhD student in the field of Achaemenid Empire studies, I was dying to see the inscription with my own eyes.

The Bisitun inscription was just one of the many marvels that I saw on our trip to Iran, however –  a trip from which we have only just returned (dates: 19 April – 6 May). We started in Tehran, quickly drove to the snowcapped mountains of Ecbatana (Hamadan), on to the chilly environs of Bisitun (Kermanshah), and from there to the sunny, over 30 degrees Celsius sites of Susa and Chogha Zanbil (Shushtar). From Shushtar we went to Shiraz, where we finally got to see Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rustam; and from there we drove (via Pasargadae) to the beautiful city of Isfahan to relish in some modern-day Persian culture. While most of us went home at that point, some of us went on to Kashan to give an Assyriology workshop to a lovely group of Iranian archaeology students. In all, we covered more than 2420 km in ca. seventeen days. So I can assure you that by the end of the trip our bus had become our second home. There’s nothing like a handful of 10-hour-days on the highways to make you bond with a vehicle.

Figure 2. Map of our crazy long itinerary.

“We” and “us” in that paragraph, by the way, refers to a small group of (mostly) Assyriologists. For all of us, it was the first time that we went to Iran; and for most of us, it was the first time that we saw cuneiform inscriptions “in the wild,” rather than in some European museum. That was quite something. I mean, you can read about a monument, you can look up the pictures in a dusty book or a scholarly article, but there’s nothing like actually standing in the cold and peering at a frustratingly invisible relief to make you understand an inscription and the place it occupies in the surrounding landscape. Being there, standing there, walking around and taking everything in, gives you a level of historical understanding that reading a published text on your couch back home just cannot. That is not to say that the latter is inferior to the former (as a historian who loves to read texts on her couch, I’d be the last one to claim that). Rather, both are elements of one inseparable whole.

Figure 3. Our little group of adventurers, posing with our guide (left) and the owners of the lovely Iranian restaurant that we visited on our way to Isfahan (right).

Unfortunately, it is well known that Assyriologists have less easy access to the “being there”-aspect of their discipline than many other scholars of antiquity. Assyriologists can visit cuneiform inscriptions in Iran, of course; or in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon etc. But Iraq – the cradle of the discipline – continues to be a country that few universities feel safe to send their students to. Who knows when that will change. One thing I do know is that I will not wait for that change. If I cannot go to (southern) Iraq, or to (parts of) Syria, then I’ll just visit all of the other countries. And Iran remains on the top of that list. It is a country with so many splendid monuments, mountains, deserts and cities that one trip does not even begin to exhaust what it has on offer. So, I will go back there. And to be completely honest, I’m already planning my next trip…