Seal of the month - Older
From Thebes, Middle Helladic cist grave (?)
Context: MH (?)
Stylistic dating: MH
The motif is put together by a cross framed by two contour crosses. The rendering is linear and the engraving clumsy. The poor engraving contrasts the effort to create the conoid shape of the seal that (despite some asymmetries) would have required some skill.
Very few seals can be attributed to the Middle Helladic period. Even these examples, however, cannot be dated with certainty since none of them comes from a securely dated context. The situation is different to that in EH II when seal impressions are amply represented in deposits such as Lerna and Geraki. A regular production (?) and consumption of seals in the Mainland will be evidenced again at the end of the Middle Bronze Age with the seals from the shaft graves of Mycenae. This material, however, is different from the EH production in that it displays a strong Minoan ‘character’. The shapes, materials, style and iconography of the early Mycenaean seals draw strongly on Minoan glyptic and are often seen as imports from Crete or even products created by Cretan engravers for a Mainland clientele. The absence of seals in the Middle Helladic period fits with the period of recession evidenced in the material culture of the Mainland following the disruptions at the end of EH II.
Two men in left profile, the one behind the other (direction of the feet). It is possible that the figure in front has the head turned back facing the figure behind it. Both arms of the man in front and one arm of the man behind him are raised. In the field there are short triangular lines and an unidentifiable element (the profile head of a man or a plant element?)
Stylistic dating: LH IIIA2-IIIB
Figures with one or two upraised arms are found in Aegean iconography from an early stage. These are gestures which are probably related to Minoan (and later Mycenaean?) cult/ritual in some way. It seems, however, possible that in the case of this seal the reason the second man has one instead of both arms raised is lack of space which came about by inappropriate or no planning before engraving the motif. The lack of planning for correct placement of the two figures would agree with the poor and skilless engraving. The figures display linear plump bodies and unproportionately long arms and hands.
The seal belongs to the so-called Mainland Popular Group (J. Younger), which consists of ca. 650 pieces engraved freehand in dark steatite. These are the first seals engraved in soft stones in the mainland; up to that time only hard stone seals or ones made of metal were used. This comes in contrast to the situation in Crete where soft stone seals were produced and used throughout the Aegean Bronze Age. In a way, the group can be seen as the first genuinely Mycenaean seal group, since both stylistically and iconographically it demonstrates its own character and does not seem to draw on Minoan traditions as much as many hard stone seals from the mainland did.
Depictions of humans are rare in the seals of the group. Most common are depictions of horned quadrupeds, heads of quadrupeds and ornamental motifs. Many of these seals are so worn that their motifs become totally illegible and their stringholes open extremely from the friction of the string. Such pieces must have been strongly personal objects important for their owners regardless of their sphragistic use. The fact, however, that other pieces found in graves are fresh from the workshop highlights the different roles that seals could play in the Aegean society. Impressions of such seals are rare as opposed to those of hard stone and metal seals which are often found on sealings. This could either suggest that the primary role of these seals (Mainland Popular Group) was not sphragistic or that their owners were not as often involved in transactions with the palaces (in or near which the vast majority of sealings in the mainland have been found) as the owners of hard stone seals.
A dual: Two antithetical men wearing a belt are depicted while fighting. The two figures stand on one leg and have the other leg bent to the back as if running. Both men are thrusting a dagger with one hand and are touching (pushing?) the head of the component, in one case turned back, with the other hand. An X is created by the combination of the two ‘front’ arms. Three dots decorate the background.
From ‘Athens, Attica’
Stylistic dating: LH II-III1
Commentary: Despite the fact that the image is depicting two figures in action it also has an ornamental quality. The pose of the men contains movement which combined with the symmetrical composition creates the impression of dancing. The turn of one head to the back breaks the balance and gives a further playful note to the image.
One of the most famous Aegean battle scenes is encountered on a golden signet ring from Mycenae and could reflect a narrative. Battling scenes have traditionally been considered Mycenaean in origin following a tendency to see the Minoans as piece loving folk engaged in the worship of nature. However, the attestation of similar scenes in Minoan seals suggests that such images were part of the Minoan repertoire from an early date. The first such scene in Aegean glyptic is carved on a hippopotamus ivory stamp ring reported to come from Moni Odigitria. Battle scenes are also encountered on impressions of neopalatial signet rings.
Three or four Linear B (?) signs
From Medeon, Grave 239
Context: LH IIIC
Stylistic dating: LH IIIA2-LH IIIB
Commentary: The inscription could be read as ja–(re)–ko–e (impression) or e-ko-(re)-ja (seal). The sign sequence is hapax, i.e. it is only encountered once in the Corpus of Linear B inscriptions.
The lentoid CMS V no. 415 is the only seal on which an inscription of Linear B is attested. It is perhaps for this reason that this inscription has been seen by some scholars as representing pseudo-writing (imitation of script signs).
Writing in the Aegean is only connected with seals in the Protopalatial period when the seal faces of three- and four-sided prisms as well as Petschafts are (along with clay administrative documents) among the most important carriers of the Cretan Hieroglyphic. As opposed to this, inscriptions of Linear A are only rarely encountered on seals. This situation possibly reflects a difference in the internal workings of the Cretan Hieroglyphic and the Linear A/B administrative systems. On the other hand, it could also be connected with the linearity of the signs of the two Linear scripts which could not be rendered in more plastic versions suitable for decorating the face of an object meant primarily as an image-carrying device.
The sealing secured an object made of leather (?) which is tied with a string
The upper side of the sealing is gable-shaped and displays six impressions on each side. An amygdaloid, a cylinder seal (carved on one side), two signet rings, five lentoids and a seal with an ellipsoidal seal face, all cut in hard stone and metal, have been impressed on this sealing. The seal motifs consist in the depictions of living creatures (humans, humans with animals, quadrupeds, apes and hybrid creatures)
From Chania, Kastelli, Agia Aikaterini Square, House I, Room D, cupboard
Context: LM IB
Stylistic dating: LM I
Commentary: One seal, CMS V Suppl. 1A no. 132, has been impressed three times on this sealing. Interestingly, this is not a metal signet ring as one might have expected but a hard stone lentoid. The reason this lentoid was impressed more times than the other seals is unknown. One possibility would be that the party represented by this seal had a stronger connection with the sealed object than the other parties. Another option would be that three individuals belonging to one party (such as a family or a faction) were represented by one and the same seal. The possibility that the seal was impressed three times on the surface of the sealing only for the shake of symmetry (six impressions on each side) cannot be ruled out.
The lentoid CMS V Suppl. 1A no. 129 appears to have been broken at the time of its use. The use of broken seals as sealing devices is also attested elsewhere in Aegean glyptic and suggests that seals retained their value as instruments of identification even when their motifs were not perfectly legible.
Chania Museum 1559 is one of two Aegean sealings which have sealed a larger object which looks like a rolled piece of leather. The sealed object could represent a document written in Linear A, perharps a contract or some kind of deal between several parties (represented by the different seal impressions). The second example of a similar document (?) has been impressed on the back side of the sealing Chania Museum 1563. This sealing, which carries the Master Impression, has, however, sealed only one edge of what seems to have been a rolled piece of leather tied with a string and not the whole document.
The two sealings discussed above carry impressions of no common seals: Chania Museum 1563 is impressed by an extraodinary metal seal face which displays one of the rare instances of ruler iconography in Aegean art; Chania Museum 1559 has only been impressed by hard stone and metal seals. The possible use of Linear A to write on documents made of leather is also attested to in the case of the packet nodules (flat-based nodules). The ‘packets’ sealed by these nodules are small objects (most often) tied with a string and could represent folded small-sized documents containing short pieces of information written in Linear A.
Impression on a direct object sealing
A milking scene and its mirror image: In each scene two antithetical men situated head to head with regard to each other and wearing only a belt are milking two antithetical animals situated back to back with regard to each other. The milk is collected in a vessel placed between the two pairs. The ground is rendered by a thicker band-shaped line.
From Chania, Kastelli, Agia Aikaterini Square, House I, Room D
Context: LM IB
Stylistic dating: LM I
Commentary: Each scene is put together by the repetition of the pair man-animal. The combination of the two scenes on the seal face creates a horizontally and vertically axial composition. For this reason and despite the fact that the image is put together by representational motifs, it also creates an ornamental impression.
Scenes in which some kind of action or even perhaps narrative is depicted are not unknown in LM I iconography. In most cases these can be associated with ritual praxis either on the basis of symbols present on such scenes or because the actions taking place are reminiscent of formal ritual practices which are also evidenced on other types of material culture, such as animal sacrifice, bull leaping, and procession scenes. Secular, at least seemingly, scenes of everyday life such as the one depicted on CMS V Suppl. 1A no. 137 are scarce. This suggests that seals themselves were, at least partially, important objects laden with a special significance and associated in some way with the sphere of the Minoan ritual.
The iconography of this seal is of particular significance because it is a rare iconographical attestation of a practice which must have played an important role in Minoan economy, that of milking. Particularly interesting is the attestation of this practice in a similar scheme in Crete even in modern times!
Impression on 14 pithos sherds
Two rows of running spirals placed the one above the other. Between them, a larger and a smaller quadruped and two dots
Context: EH II (Lerna, Zygouries)
Stylistic dating: EH II
Commentary: The placement of the quadrupeds between the spirals differentiates this roller from the remaining examples of such objects which only display ornamental motifs. Common motifs on EH rollers are spirals, false spirals, zig-zags, chevrons, and wavy lines. It seems that the craftsperson placed the quadrupeds in the field in order to fill the free space created between the spirals. The fact that the one is smaller than the other and that the two are placed in an angle with regard to each other could suggest that the engraving of the quadrupeds was not planned from the start but was only conceived after the engraving of the spirals.
Rollers are differentiated from cylinder seals (used for securing, labeling or identifying) in that they are used to decorate the surface of an object with a frieze of ornamental motifs. The majority of rollers preserved today come from Neolithic contexts in northern Greece. These objects are made of clay, they take the shape of a solid or tubular cylinder, and have no perforation.
In the Early Helladic Period the majority of impressions of rollers are attested in the Argolis (there is, however, also an example from Amorgos). They decorate the bodies of pithoi and the rims of herds. The small piece of a roller recovered in the Argolis could represent the type of seal that impressed the EH pithoi and herds.
The impression of the roller CMS V nos. 120, 504, 529 has been found on pithos sherds recovered in Lerna, Zygouries, and Tiryns.Such large vessels were most possibly made in the site in which they were found. This would mean that the craftsperson who manufactured them (and was using the roller) would have to travel from the one place to the other to provide his/her services. Such impressions would then represent evidence for itinerant workers in EH II.
A maeandroid ornamental motif.
From Nessonis, Larisa
Stylistic dating: Middle Neolithic
Commentary: The first ‘seals’ in the Aegean are encountered in the Neolithic period. They are, however, different from the Bronze Age seals both in their configuration and most probably, their use. They are large stamps made of soft stone or clay reaching in length up to 6.5 cm. Conoids and plates with a pierced-grip are the most common shapes. The outline of the faces is quite variable and irregular because it takes the shape of the motif. Neolithic stamps display exclusively ornamental motifs.
It is possible that the motif on these stamps did not correspond to the gouged part of the face but to the part left unengraved. The large dimensions of these pieces and the fragile character of some clay stamps make their impressing on clay difficult. Moreover, the deep engraving makes the removal of the stamps from clay (which penetrates very deep in the intaglios) after impressing difficult. It has been suggested that such stamps would have been used to print colour on skin or cloth, or even to impress bread. Impressions of such stamps have, however, been reportedly found on Neolithic pots.
Clay and stone stamps of this type are known from northern and central mainland Greece. They are dated from the Early to the Late Neolithic. They have been named by some scholars pintaderas because of the resemblance of their shape and possible use to the Neolithic and Bronze Age pintaderas (clay stamps with ornamental motifs) of the west Mediterranean.
Signet ring with lightly ellipsoidal seal face, gold. Engraved by hand.
A Linear A inscription developed in a field defined by a spiral. The inscription reads (from the circumference to the centre):
From Knossos, Necropolis Mavro Spilio, Grave IX, Chamber E
Context: MM II-LM III (?)
Stylistic dating: MM III-LM I
Commentary: The inscription consists of 19 signs, one of which (*301) is read as an ideogram. Since Linear A is not deciphered, the content of the text is unknown (the phonetic values on the script are given by comparison with the values these signs have in Linear B). It is, however, possible, that this was an inscription of a religious nature, as must have been the majority of Linear A inscriptions found on objects other than clay tablets, such as libation tables, conical cups and metal pins.
The unflolding of the text in a field defined by spiral is reminiscent of the similar configuration of the text on the two sides of the Phaistos Disc. The recovery of the Mavro Spilio ring at a date later (1926) than the discovery of the Phaistos Disc (1908) is then another indication that the latter is a genuine Minoan artifact (otherwise how would an alleged forger know that the development of a text in such a scheme was a Minoan habit).
Inscriptions of Linear A are rare on seals as opposed to those of the Cretan Hieroglyphic which are common on MM II hard stone seals (e.g. three- and four-sided prisms as well as petschafts). They are only encountered on four more seals dating to MM II and MM II/MM III (CMS II,2 no. 213 b, CMS II,3 no. 23 (?), CMS VII no. 31, CMS XII no. 96 a, b). None of these seals takes the prismatic shape.
Impression on fifteen packet nodules (flat-based nodules) and a string nodule (two-hole hanging nodules).
A frontally rendered fantastic combination: The head of an animal (?), two open human legs, and the fan-shaped tail of a bird are combined in one figure.
From Zakros, House A
Context: LM IB
Stylistic dating: LM I
Commentary: The term fantastic combination is a conventional designation used to refer to a group of compositions which are put together by parts of various motifs. In most cases, fantastic combinations are put together by the combination of parts of various creatures, as is the case with the combination encountered in CMS II,7 no. 119, which consists of parts of an animal, a human, and a bird. Parts of birds, humans, wild goats, bulls, lions, boars, and rams are the most common elements combined in such compositions. Apart from creature parts, also objects, such as helmets, and ornamental motifs can be combined in fantastic combinations.
The fantastic combinations which are put together by parts of creatures differ from hybrid creatures, as are griffins and Minoan Genii, in that they do not seem to have been fixed creatures existing as such in the imagination of the society that created them. Griffins and Minoan Genii, like humans and quadrupeds, seem to have had fixed characteristics and would have been recognisable as specific hybrids in the Aegean world. On the other hand, the creatures created in the fantastic combinations are most times unique and not encountered systematically in the Minoan repertoire. Such images are better seen as ‘puzzles’ created by the combination of various parts and not as fixed creatures.
Fantastic combinations have been engraved on the seal faces of a stylistically homogeneous group of seals which are only known to us by their impressions. The vast majority of such impressions come from House A in Kato Zakros where a deposit of more than 500 sealings has come to light. Packet nodules (flat-based nodules) and string nodules (two-hole hanging nodules) are the most common carriers of such impressions. Since, with one possible but also contended exception, none of these seals has survived, we can only speculate about the shape and material of these objects. The seal faces are round and convex, which would make lentoids a possibility. The engraving technique suggests a soft material cut by tools operated freehand (stone?, wood?). The seals belonging to this group are often referred to as the seals of the Zakros Master following their, also controversial, attribution to one individual by Judith Weingarten (Weingarten, J. 1983. The Zakro Master and his Place in Prehistory, SIMA Pocket-Book 26. Göteborg: Åström.)
Side a: A row of seven lions in right profile are walking the one behind the other in the outer periphery of the seal face. Six spiders are placed the one behind the other in a circular configuration in the inner periphery of the seal face. While the lions are ‘moving’ in an anticlockwise direction, the spiders are ‘moving’ in a clockwise direction. In the centre, a small circle.
Side b: Three scorpions placed the one behind the other in a circular configuration. The scorpions are ‘moving’ in an anticlockwise direction.
From Platanos, Tholos A, Area ζ
Context: EM III-MM II
Stylistic dating: EM III/MM IA
Commentary: The compositions on the seal are static. The animals are placed the one behind the other without any expression of movement. Only the front legs of the lions are combined in the shape of a V, which is interpreted as suggesting movement, and thus that the animals are walking. However, a playful sense of movement is created in seal face a from the fact that the direction of the lions is different from that of the spiders. This way the impression is created that the ‘outer’ circle is moving in a clockwise and the inner to an anticlockwise direction.
The animals are depicted in a summary way and details of the interior of the bodies are not rendered. Only the manes of the lions are rendered, a characteristic which along with the long curling tales helps towards the identification of the animals as lions.
Solid stamp cylinders become a standard shape in Crete in EM III/MM IA and are mostly cut in hippo ivory. Hippo ivory is not indigenous in Crete but imported, probably from Egypt. EM III/MM IA is the period when its use becomes commonplace for certain types of seals in Minoan glyptic. Given the fact that the other materials used at that time, such as bone and soft stone, were local, the hippo ivory must have been ‘exotic’ and therefore have had a high value. Stamp cylinders are very close to the natural form of the raw material which often needed only sectioning for the seal faces to be created. Therefore, such seals are also generally larger than contemporary seals cut in other materials. One can imagine that they would be immediately visible when worn as one would expect for prestige objects made in valuable materials.
EM III/MM IA seals are the first seals on which the representational element in Aegean glyptic is starting to emerge. While ornamental compositions, which were standard in EM II and EM III are still common, representations of animals start becoming increasingly important in this period. More common are the depictions of lions whereas those of hoofed quadrupeds, scorpions, fish, and spiders are rarer. The first representations of humans, although rare, also emerge in this period. The use of imported materials and the emergence of representational motifs in this phase of the prepalatial glyptic could reflect social changes connected to the development of more intensive individual consciousness and greater need for expression of personal identity.
Planoconvex plate, glass, beige-coloured with black-brownish mottling (colour due to corrosion). Cast in a mould.
A standing deer with head turned to the back in left profile. One front leg is lifted.
From Volos, Plot Tachoúla, Chamber Tomb 1
Context: LH IIA-LH IIIA2
Stylistic dating: LH IIIA1-LH IIIB
Commentary: The animal can be safely identified as a deer because of its antlers. The lifted front leg could suggest movement, and thus that the animal is walking.
Deer are very rarely encountered on glass seals cast in moulds. The example shown here is one of two among the seals published in the CMS (the other is CMS V Suppl. 2 no. 64). The animal is also rare among the contemporaneous soft stone seals and it is only encountered twice on seals of the Mainland Popular Group.
The piece represents one of the best well-made examples of a glass seal cast in a mould. The representation is individualized by the addition of details on the body of the animal such as the musculature rendered on the upper part of the legs. Often, not much care is given in the manufacture of such seals, where joins and casting rims are immediately visible.
The first examples of glass seals in the Aegean come from LM I. However, in these cases the glass is treated like a stone and is cut, not cast. It must have therefore been imported in the Aegean in already made blocks. Glass seals cast in moulds were manufactured in the Mainland during LH IIIA1-LH IIIB, a time when glass jewelry cast in moulds became also commonplace. Most glass seals are lentoids with conical backs but some round planoconvex plates like our example here are also represented. The image repertoire on such pieces is restricted and consists mainly in the depiction of quadrupeds, mostly goats, calves, rams, and lions, which can appear alone on the seal face or be combined in pairs.
The distribution of these seals is concentrated in the Mycenaean Mainland and extends from the Peloponnese to southern Macedonia. Individual pieces have been recovered in Crete whereas one example comes from the Levant. In the Mycenaean Mainland, such pieces are most often found in the periphery of the Mycenaean heartland and are almost exclusively found in graves. Pieces from the same mould or ones that look very similar to each other can be found in the same cemeteries and in some cases even in one tomb. Often, such seals are fresh from the workshop, which could, in combination with the fact that they were often recovered in graves, suggest that they were not primarily used for sealing.
The colour of the glass would have initially been uniform. A block of steatite with relief carvings of animals in three round deepenings could represent a possible casting mould for such seals (CMS XII no.262).
Ritual (?) scene: A human figure with naked torso and wearing a long skirt is standing in right profile. The figure has short hair, a large eye, and a pointy nose. Its hands are raised to hold a triton shell in a horizontal position in front of its mouth. In front of the figure is depicted a biconcave altar on which sits a pair of horns of consecration. Either side of the horns and between them is placed a branch-motif. Behind the human figure is depicted a branch-like element with branches only on its upper part and with a short horizontal base (a tree?). Between the figure and the altar there is an unidentifiable object and to the right of the altar can be seen a star-shaped motif. The floor is denoted by a set of two parallels.
From: ‘Idaean Cave’
Context : LH I-LH IIIA1
Stylistic Dating: LB III A1
The sex of the figure cannot be identified with certainty as it is not certain whether it has breasts or not. The position of the shell in front of the figure’s mouth suggests that it functions as a trumpet and that the figure is depicted while blowing it. The biconcave altar in front of the figure is most often met in conjunction with exotic animals or mythical creatures, like lions and griffins. The horns of consecration are a well-known ritual symbol of the Minoans. Therefore, these elements would suggest a scene taking place within the ritual sphere. The small size of the ‘tree’ behind the figure implies that this is not central in the ritual symbolism on this specific scene.
The scene is one of the two known scenes encompassing a biconcave altar in a descriptive context. The other one is that on the agate CMS V Suppl. 1A no. 75 from ‘Knossos’. On this seal, a female figure wearing a long skirt is depicted in front of a biconcave altar which supports a set of horns of consecration. In this case, a large tree to the side of the altar plays a central role in the ritual symbolism of the scene. Both scenes are dated to the LB II-III A1.
In the remaining scenes displaying a human figure wearing a skirt in front of a construction supporting horns of consecration, the human can be identified as a female (e.g. CMS I nos. 86, 108, 279, 410; CMS II,6 no. 3; CMS V no. 728; CMS VI no. 279; CMS VS1B nos. 113, 115).
Another seal depicting a human holding a triton is CMS II,8 no. 241.
Hunting scene: On the seal face, a man with long hair wearing a conical boar’s teeth (?) helmet is attacking a male boar with a long spear. The only visible garment of the figure is a thick belt-like element around its waist. The man is escorted by a dog wearing a collar.
From Pylos, Messenia, Grave Circle Vagena
Context : LH I-LH IIIA1
Stylistic Dating: LB II
The way the three creatures are combined in this scene accentuates the dramatic element on the action depicted. The two animals are placed antithetically facing each other with their bodies bent at their backs such that crescent forms are created. These forms constitute a border for the centre of the seal face, which will depict the most important action. The man is placed in the foreground with legs covering part of the dog’s body and a torso bent at 90° with regard to his pelvis. The torso and the spear held vertically to it but parallel to the man's legs and the bodies of the animals cover the central part of the image emphasizing the human act of spearing the boar. The large size of this animal stresses its strength and therefore the achievement of the man killing the beast!
The theme of a man fighting a wild boar is only encountered three times among the seals published in the CMS. All three examples are cut in hard stones, come from the Peloponnese, and are dated to the Late Bronze Age (for the other two examples, see CMS I no. 227; CMS XI no. 32).