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Cylinder seal and modern impression: nude bearded hero wrestling with a water buffalo; bull-man wrestling with lion

Met curator Yelena Rakic on reading into Cylinder seal and modern impression: nude bearded hero wrestling with a water buffalo; bull-man wrestling with lion from Mesopotamia,  c. 2250–2150 B.C.E.

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Video transcript

Cylinder seals, we have around five hundred of them, started to be used in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, in tandem with writing. They were rolled either a clay tablet or on a lump of clay that would have been used to guard against unauthorized opening of a storage jar or to serve as a lock. And in the case of a tablet, the seal was really used like a signature, to authenticate the contents of what the cuneiform inscription said. It’s carved in reverse to create a raised impression. Often, you can’t see the whole imagery. What’s the point of the imagery, if you can’t see it? One idea is that it’s the actual act of rolling out the seal that has the meaning, the act of participating in an agreement or enclosing something. The subject matter of this seal is a contest scene: two pairs of evenly-matched contestants. One pair depicts a human-headed bull, and he’s grappling with a lion. Then the other pair of contestants is the bearded nude hero with curls, and he is grappling with the water buffalo. Between these two pairs of contestants is an encased cuneiform inscription. The signs seem to read, “Slave of the house of the storm god.” So, this person could be a subordinate. And then there are also these filler motifs: A star and a crescent moon, perhaps a bovid. There are hundreds of this iconography of the contest scene within the Akkadian administration. It stood for the power of the dynasty. Just this balance between the human, the animal, the composite creatures – no one wins. It does seem to indicate that there’s the balance of forces of nature. The history of the ancient Near East is very long, yet so little actually remains. There are parts of reliefs of palaces, fragments of pots, some sculpture. We’re only seeing a fragment of something. With this seal you see the entire work of art. To be able to hold something and realize that someone else held it and used it four thousand years ago, that is compelling.