Ancient Cylinder Seals

Presentation before a God

By Anna Glenn

Accession Number: FIC.07.178
Measurements: Length: 2.6 cm, Width: 1.5 cm
Material: Stone, Hematite
Date/Culture: Sumerian, 2112-2004 B.C.E.
Provenance: Unknown

A clean-shaven man is presented before a seated, bearded god. In the spaces between the figures are a cluster of three drill-holes, a crescent moon, and a tall, narrow-necked jar on a small table. An inscription, written in cuneiform, reads: a-ḫa?-ni-šu // arad₂ nu-ur₂-dšul-gi


The scene on this seal represents the standard “presentation scene” of the Ur III period, dating to ca. 2112-2004 B.C.E. Such scenes depict a human worshipper – probably representing the owner of the seal – led by a goddess before an enthroned deity. The latter two figures are identified as deities by their horned hats – a symbol of divinity in Mesopotamian from the 3rd millennium onward. The goddess is a type of personal, protective deity known in Sumerian as lama and in Akkadian as lamassu, who often appears in presentation scenes “interceding” on behalf of a mortal. In scenes of the Ur III period, she leads him before a seated deity; in later periods, she stands behind him and assumes a suppliant posture.

The enthroned deity does not appear to represent any one, particular member of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Although the crescent moon – a standard feature in Ur III presentation scenes –  was, in later periods, associated with Mesopotamian moon god Sîn, there is no evidence for such an association here, and the crescent moon appears above gods, goddesses and deified kings alike.

The inscription on this seal identifies its owner as “Aḫa-nīšu, servant of Nūr-Šulgi.” Aḫa-nīšu was a fairly common name during the Ur III and later periods; the name Nūr-Šulgi, though less common, is also attested (e.g., on another presentation-scene seal also dating to the Ur III period [BM 89180, published in Collon 1982 no. 452]). His name means “light of Šulgi” (Šulgi being the name of a deified Ur III-dynasty king).

While the configuration of the figures in this scene is most typical of the Ur III period, it also does occur on the earliest seals of the subsequent Old Babylonian period, appearing as late as ca. 1900 B.C.E.. Since there was no clear break between the styles of these two periods, it is possible that this seal dates to the early second millennium, rather than the Ur III period. Although one of the names in the inscription incorporates the name of an Ur III king, similar names are also attested in the early Old Babylonian period. Likewise, the name Aḫa-nīšu appears in both periods. The formula “PN, servant of PN,” while known on a few other Ur III seals, is much more typical of the Old Babylonian period.

On the other hand, even if the inscription can be dated to the Old Babylonian period, seal inscriptions are generally unreliable for determining a seal’s original date: it was not uncommon for inscriptions to be added to seals many years – even centuries – after their original cutting. Thus, while an Old Babylonian inscription would indicate a date no later than the Old Babylonian period, it may tell us nothing about the seal’s earliest possible cutting.


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