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Abstract

As markers of identity, social status, and administrative rank, seals and their designs functioned as one of the most important non-verbal identifiers for their owners in the ancient Near East. Consequently, the selection of seal imagery was a carefully made decision (either by the seal owner or a central institution), that turned seals into a means of communication. This dissertation studies the imagery of early second millennium glyptic in northern Mesopotamia to understand the political mechanisms and ideologies underlying the choice of motifs in seal design, and the effects of political change on material culture. Rather than a traditional text-oriented viewpoint, this project adopts an interdisciplinary approach to study identity from a visual perspective. By integrating methods and evidence from archaeology, art history, and textual studies, it seeks to provide insights into the socio-political aspects of northern Mesopotamia in this period and understand their reflection on the glyptic traditions of the region. The study focuses specifically on a period of ca. 75 years, covering the reign of Šamši-Adad I (ca. 1847-1776 B.C.) and ending with the destruction of Šeḫna by Samsu-iluna in 1728 B.C. The dataset consists of seals and seal impressions from official contexts at Tell Bi’a, Tell Leilan, Tell al-Rimah, and Mari, which were important administrative centers of Šamši-Adad’s kingdom, as well as Acemhöyük in Anatolia, which had close diplomatic and economic ties with this polity. Textual evidence shows that Šamši-Adad successfully created a politically unified entity across Upper Mesopotamia by combining the preexisting political and ideological infrastructures of the region with the cultural memory and traditions of the Akkadian, Ur III, Old Assyrian, and Old Babylonian worlds. The visual manifestation of this unifying ideology is the standardized iconography and inscriptions of the seals held by royal servants, the ownership of which embodied a close affiliation with the king and state. The “figure-with-mace” motif featured on these seals was an important part of Šamši-Adad’s strategically crafted visual program of representation. The motif was not an original product of this program and had been a rather common element in the iconography of both private and official seals in southern Mesopotamia since the Isin-Larsa period. What makes the use of this motif significant for the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia and the independent kingdoms following it, however, is the new and distinct meaning that was attached to it as a visual symbol of a successful expansionist polity. The broad appeal of the figure-with-mace motif on the seals of kings, queens, and royal servants even half a century after the fall of the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia bespeaks the success of Šamši-Adad’s strategic program of representation of ideology and power, which is seen by many scholars as the ideological forerunner of the later Assyrian empires.

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