Ancient Egypt Research Associates

*This is the second installment of a series by AERA Sealings Team Member and Managing Editor Ali Witsell. Read part one here and read John Nolan’s introductory sealings blog from the beginning of the season, for a refresher course on sealing terminology.

Early on, our ideas on the informal sealings were largely based on their lack of serekhs and some not-so-stellar carving, such that their overwhelming characteristic was really their decided un-royalness. For me, “informal” became a sort of catch-all term for stamp and cylinder seals with geometric motifs, animal scenes that could be wild and chaotic, and often crudely carved, blocky hieroglyphs – quite honestly, “informal” was the soup that contained everything that didn’t get passed to John’s side of the table for registration.

But in our corpus, there were glimpses of brilliant sigillographic fun that truly broke from the Official mold – a fabulous baboon, a tumbling acrobat, rows of catfish. And sometimes those glimpses looked really Mesopotamian to someone like myself with a non-Egyptological background. But they were one-offs, and in the world of sealings, sometimes a one-off just doesn’t cut it.

You see, finding an actual complete cylinder seal is rare. The vast majority of the time, we work from the sealings alone. We make sketches of what part of each seal is preserved on each sealing and cross our fingers that someday we excavate enough pieces of the puzzle that we can put together the larger whole, what we call a theoretical seal. We’re never likely to see that actual seal, but theoretically, we think we have enough of the whole to understand at least a bit of what it has to say. The more pieces of one theoretical we have — what we call duplicates — the higher the likelihood the seal owner was present and working on site. So, the more pieces, the better. It’s rather like a giant game of Memory, but with thousands of pieces spread across acres of excavation. And man oh man, did I LOVE Memory as a kid.

Brilliant sigillographic fun. From left: the legs of a quadruped (likely a caprid), with fish below; the distinctive head and snout of a baboon channeling his inner Nosferatu with arms outstretched; a tumbling acrobat with the feet and back end of another just in front.

But where do these informals come from? And why do they look so Mesopotamian? And why are they so very different from the formals?

The Mesopotamian connection is actually pretty easy to explain and has been discussed extensively in the academic literature for years. It’s generally thought that the earliest known examples of cylinder seals found here in Egypt are either copies or direct Mesopotamian imports brought in through trade sometime in the Naqada period during the mid-4th millennium. But by the end of that millennium, it’s clear that the ancient Egyptians had taken it and made in entirely their own. There are riffs on Mesopotamian glyptic traditions – the use of space, the arrangement of motifs, the clear borrowing of some classic Mesopotamian iconography – but there are some truly spectacular grammars at play in the Naqada-period glyptic material that are clearly internal, native developments.

Location, location, location
In the 1960s-1980s, a Swiss Egyptologist named Peter Kaplony took on the Herculean task of gathering together the known excavated examples of cylinder seals and sealings from Old Kingdom excavations, encompassing all types, and the full range of our formal-informal continuum. To these archaeological examples, he added complete seals from both museums (sometimes from legit excavations) and from private collections (sometimes bought off the art market). As great as it is to have a complete example to compare my little one-offs to, most of the time, a seal in a private collection is completely divorced from its archaeological context. For a collection of pieces like the informals that have no inherent dating evidence, this situation really just becomes a pretty picture book. It’s nice to look at, and valuable for gathering evidence on the decorative side, but we need to know where it came from in the ground in order to truly fix its place in the firmament of Old Kingdom glyptic development. We need archaeological deposits where the informals exist together either with other material culture that we can date by association (for example, pottery), or to date even more precisely, we need informals in contexts with dateable formals to truly pin down the usage of the informals to a specific king’s reign.

The same goes for motif development as well. Think of a batch of sealings excavated from a secure, dated context much like a bead on a necklace. If we know what seals and sealings from a sound Naqada IIIa2 context at Abydos look like (and we do, thanks to excavations there), and we know what seals and sealings from solid 3rd Dynasty contexts at Elephantine look like (which we do, thanks to excavations there), and so on, then slowly, site by site and team by team, we string our beads together into one necklace that tells the overall chronological story of glyptic development in Egypt. And thanks to the formals here at Giza, and AERA’s careful work excavating them, I think we’ll be able to string quite a few of the beads from Kaplony’s informal picture book onto that necklace.

The sky’s the limit
To quickly cover the breadth of variety in the larger informal Old Kingdom glyptic corpus is really an exercise in futility. Sometimes it feels like the number one rule in informals is to expect the unexpected. But there are general trends and motifs, and the more of those we gather from all over Egypt, the closer we are to understanding the breadth and limits of the types.

Whereas the artists that carved Official seals often used the entire seal surface as one giant horizontal register, using serekhs and cartouches to break up the space, the informal artists could take off on more than one path. One giant horizontal register with no division, three to five vertically divided panels in equal spacing across the cylinder, two to three smaller horizontal panels in combination with a larger vertical panel that runs the full height of the cylinder seal – the variations are seemingly endless.

Then, on top of that variety, these panel combinations can be filled with any number of decorative elements and motifs. At their most basic level, informal sealings typically display graphical designs. But these can range from simple geometric net or criss-cross patterns to elaborate animal forms in tête-bêche arrangements – ours are most often foot-to-foot rather than back-to-back. Animals can appear in single file or rows, be singular, or fused in a strange sort of mirror-image symmetry. The most common animals depicted are apes, wild cats and jackals, horned caprids, rabbits, and birds. Common reptiles are scorpions, crocodiles, snakes; fish and various flying insects are also present. The depictions of each are cleverly perspective correct, meaning most scorpions, snakes, and lizards are depicted from a top-down view, as we would normally see them, while the larger animals are most often shown in side profile. The poses of animals can vary, most are shown walking or in recumbent resting positions, however they can also be seated, as monkeys and apes commonly do. Animals can be shown to do human things – an idea with direct Mesopotamian antecedents – a monkey leading a caprid on a leash, four-legged animals can walk on two and hold hunting weapons, animals drinking from a communal ceremonial bowl.

It’s a real wild time on my side of the table up at the lab.

Sometimes I feel bad for John…serekh, title, serekh, title.

And yes, I do think we have a giraffe…from our 2012 excavations in one of the galleries. But that I know of, there’s only one other exemplar out there to compare it to – and that’s another blog in itself.

Why the difference?

So even though those are a lot of fun, they’re still largely one-offs with somewhat limited value until we excavate enough of them for me to place them in a larger theoretical seal reconstruction. There’s so much more information we could wring out of them if we only had the right deposits. What groups do these sealings represent? What goods or services are they contributing to the economy of the site? How do we push our understanding further?

Stay tuned for the next installment…