Cylinder seals are the only object surviving in quantity over the entire period

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Cylinder seals were wonderful, small objects that are incised with graphic images and sometimes writings that were the "signature" of dignitaries, officials, and the upper class in the ancient Near East. They are made of hard stones, often black or dark green, but also of Lapis Lazuli, chalcedony, agate, jasper, marble, carnelian and crystal.

Cylinder seals are the only object from the ancient Near East surviving in quantity over the entire period. Therefore, for the history of art, they are unique. In addition, some carry inscriptions naming the ancient owners, or giving other valuable information, which is also unique since captions on objects are extremely rare in this area and period. Since cylinder seals are small and mostly made of stone, many have survived intact, while other objects such as large sculpture in the round and large stone reliefs have rarely survived intact, if at all. Victorious armies often destroyed them of set plan, or plunderers and vandals as well as the elements took a toll of them over the centuries. Thus, a major collection of cylinder seals has an importance well beyond the size and bulk of the objects.

Cylinder seals are somewhat a kin to Chinese scrolls in that they need to be "unraveled", or "rolled out". Because they cannot be seen completely without turning them, they are sort of early animations. Some have one continuous scene, others are "compartmentalized", and some have inscriptions. Many of the earliest ones have simple geometric patterns, and there are many traditional scenes involving nobility, Gods, hunters, and beasts. Most are meant to be scrolled horizontally. There are small seals and large seals, some lean and some fat. In many instances, the incised images are very hard to discern directly from the seal, often because of the stone's particular coloration, and most seals that are auctioned nowadays come with a gray clay tablet on which the seal's impression has been made, which makes it easier to visualize. Remarkably, the three-dimensionality of the carving is usually quite pronounced. Collectors prize the quality of the images, but Surena collection also included many that were of historical importance because of style or specific inscriptions.

Cylinder seals were pressed into wet clay to leave an impression of the design in order to seal vessels, consignments of goods and the door latches of storerooms so that it could be ascertained whether the contents had been tampered with. People in the ancient Near East created seals around 3000 BC. The early seals were "stamp seals" and had one or more flat sides depicting a design. By 3200 BC, seals were made in cylinder form that permitted the seal to be rolled over wet clay to produce a continuous image or frieze. The primary use of seals was to designate ownership. They were impressed on the clay that sealed storage jars and on lumps of clay wrapped around ropes securing bales of goods. When the clay hardened, the impression became a permanent record, a sign of ownership. The shape and size of cylinder seals, the type of material used, and the designs carved into the surface varied according to period and area.

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