Winner of the 2021 Max Le Petit and Gwenyth Jones Nicholson Collection Prize

7 February 2022

The $1000 bi-annual prize has been awarded to undergraduate student Brad Arsenault.

The Max Le Petit and Gwenyth Jones Nicholson Collection Prize is awarded for an essay or written work submitted as part of a student's undergraduate coursework on any aspect of the Nicholson Collection.

Cylinder seal

Calcite cylinder seal depicting a contest scene. Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum, NM62.772

Read Brad Arsenault's winning work on an Early Dynastic cylinder seal from the Nicholson Collection.

Cylinder seals are small but culturally and economically significant artefacts, many of which are roughly the shape and size of a modern-day thread spool. Unlike their contemporary counterparts, these ancient spools or cylinder seals were not used for thread, but rather they were engraved stone or metal works that when rolled over a soft material like clay or wax would leave a recognisable, and repeating pattern. The clay would naturally dry leaving the impression intact.

The Nicholson calcite cylinder seal at the Chau Chak Wing Museum (NM62.772.1) dates to the Early Dynastic II and Illa periods, roughly 2,700 to 2,500 BC. 

This essay will demonstrate that these tiny artefacts served a dual purpose during the Early Dynastic II and Illa period as both tools of commerce, and as unique pieces of art. 

Production and Material

The process of manufacturing seals in ancient times seems to have been left to a select group of artisans. In Ur, for example, lapidaries or stone carvers were identified on a tablet and depicted working together with other artisans, crafting stone works, leather, wood, ropes, reed, and metal.

In earlier periods, such as the Ubaid period and up to the middle of the third millennium, as technology was still limited, craftsmen worked with softer stones like chlorite, steatite, serpentine, marble, limestone, and alabaster since these materials could be more easily manipulated and crafted into seals.

In contrast, stamp seals were often manufactured using onyx, porphyry, carnelian, sard, banded agate, and crystal quartz. As technologies were developed and evolved so too did seal design and since seal ‘carving was idiosyncratic from one region and period to another, the seals can be precisely dated’. Yet as southern Mesopotamia was largely an alluvial plain, stones for seals and cylinder seal production had to be imported. Iran is considered a likely source which also further demonstrates the extent of trade and commerce that had developed throughout Uruk and Mesopotamia.

As commerce and trade grew throughout the region, no doubt the need for more complex administrative controls also began to evolve in-situ. Simple stamp seals were no longer good enough. Cylinder seals provided administrators and craftsmen the ability to include both more information and an ability to develop a highly utilitarian tool for marking and sealing a larger surface. Unlike its relative the stamp seal, the cylinder seal, because of its larger surface area could support an unending narrative. Cylinder seals could be used for a variety of administrative controls, ‘this shape made it possible to easily cover irregular surfaces with the images carved on the seal’.

The Chau Chak Wing seal was carved in calcite, a material which may have come from Iraq or the southern Levant where ancient calcite quarries have been discovered and analysed such as at Te’omim and the Abud Caves. Thus, further demonstrating expanding trade or even plundering throughout the region and during the period as new rulers looked to assert their divine rights and control over ancient lands.

Religious and Cultural Use

As small as cylinder seals may be, they had a big role to play from a religious and cultural perspective in ancient Mesopotamia. They were works of art and even heirlooms carrying important personal and social significance. These tiny talisman were often worn around the neck or wrist and were capped with decorative metal such as gold or silver demonstrating an individual’s class status in society and further establishing control through a social hierarchy.

From the symbols and writing as well as through interpreting the locations of where cylinder seals have been found, such as in temples and left as votive offerings, to locating seal impressions on goods such as amphora, and in households, archaeologists have been able to determine that they held both sacred and secular purpose and ‘were fundamental to the character of these earliest civilizations’.

Their recognition as a status symbol didn’t end with the artistic engraving, but were the combination of both material and imagery that gave cylinder seals their power and ‘meant that the seals themselves often also had amuletic, aesthetic, or even economic value and could play an important role as personal adornment’.

No doubt as growth in population, trade and material wealth grew, an assertion of power was deemed necessary and seals were one method of control as demonstrated by archaeologists like Costello. This hierarchical establishment was accomplished through both the material used to craft the seals and the iconography they contained.


Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have reflected on the iconography carved into seals. Although these artefacts may be small, ‘the images speak volumes, hinting at the variety of images that must have existed on larger works’. Through analysis and comparison of monumental art works that spanned the time of ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists have been able to identify quite accurately, the dates of many intact seals. Thus, changes in monumental art and symbology as was directed or dictated by new rulers provides archaeologists the information, they need to accurately date seals. The images and iconography engraved and carved into seals by lapidaries were a direct reflection of the ‘relationships between gods and kings and humanity’. As change occurred in society and new rulers took their positions, public imagery changed which resulted in changes to the imagery represented on seals.

According to Pittman, it was in Mesopotamia along the alluvial plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that the glyptic work of ‘carving and engraving seals found its fullest expression.’ The Chau Chak Wing Museum, calcite cylinder seal which I have chosen to research, is engraved with an animal contest scene which was a common motif at the time. In this case, this calcite seal contains a nude hero armed with a dagger and an unidentified object and is facing and battling the first of two standing, symmetrically opposed lions, both of which flank and are overlapped by a wild standing bull. Toward the end of the seal, on the right, is a third lion attacking a wild ‘caprid’ assumed by Potts to be a short-haired, wild sheep. Compositions such as contest scenes, with their overlapping and intertwined heroic figures and animals combined with the endless, almost infinite, circling effect of the frieze are what make this object ‘integrate so well with the conceptual qualities inherent in a cylinder seal…’.

The contest scene was one of two common scenes found and depicted on cylinder seals during the ED III period. The second style or genre style are often banquet scenes depicting offerings being made to a ruler, a god or perhaps a high-ranking individual. These scenes contrast greatly and ‘there is a clear division between the types of scenes which each style depicts: modelled style for contest scenes and animal friezes, linear style for genre scenes’. In works and research conducted by Elhewaily, a matrix of scene types that plot the evolution of the intercession scenes clearly demonstrate that the most likely period for the Chau Chak Wing seal is the Akkadian period through to the ED period when contest scenes were depicted according to the research. But regardless of the scene engraved, the cylinder seal was more than a decorative piece of worn jewellery, it also held administrative and economic powers.

Administrative & Economic Use

Although, seals held great amuletic and religious power, their earthly power was perhaps in their utilitarian ability to display administrative and economic authority. Seals were used ‘extensively to mark containers, jars, baskets, boxes, and bags as well as to lock doors by means of ropes secured to knobs to discourage unauthorized openings’. As surplus of goods grew, better means of securing agricultural storage from unauthorised access in order to protect goods for the gods, rulers and elite was very important and seals ‘were deployed within an administration meant to impose control within the production and the distribution of surplus’. Yet, over time, seals become more about demonstrating material wealth and less about demonstrating administrative controls.

Seal owners were often high-ranking officials in the Ur III administration. However, this changes to a large degree as illustrated by Feingold, who analysed a sample of 482 seals from the Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BC) and found that the majority of the seals were personal items rather than administrative since only ‘0.5% of the total number of seals in the sample, belong to administrators. As Feingold and others have discovered, the cylinder seal begins to fall out of favour as an administrative tool by the Old Babylonian period as writing systems develop, but it finds a use during Ur III period for administrative and economic needs. The cylinder seal would see use across, ‘primarily records of disbursements and receipts of goods and services'.

Sealing practices would continue to expand and change over the second and most of the first millennia. The Chau Chak Wing cylinder seal would have held a purpose for both administrative and religious use considering the period for which it’s been dated.


The Chau Chak Wing cylinder seal stands as a symbol of a period in history through which we can witness the early development of, trade and economics, art, and culture, and their intersection.

The symbology and iconography contained on this seal and seals with contrasting scenes of banquets are reflections of monumental art and culture experienced at the time and so as rulers changed and society adapted to new deities and kings, art evolved in parallel which naturally led to iconographic changes in the engraved seals themselves. As technologies and writing developed, the cylinder seal evolved in tandem, incorporating more elaborate and complex scenes as well as inscriptions and writing.

From once holding power administratively, to eventually becoming no more that fancy pieces of jewellery or votive offerings, the cylinder seal serves as an excellent demonstration of artistic development, cultural evolution and technological innovation casting a light on the life and times of an ancient and fascinating civilisation.

Brad Arsenault is an archaeology student at the University of Sydney and the winner of the 2021 Max Le Petit and Gwenyth Jones Nicholson Collection Prize.