Glyptic Art and Cultural Identity in Third Millennium BC Greater Mesopotamia

Yelena Rakic
University of Pennsylvania

As stated in the abstract of this paper, my goal is to consider whether differences and similarities in the iconography and style of the glyptic art of mid-third millennium BC greater Mesopotamia can be examined as markers of group identification-or by extension ethnic identity. Recently, Holly Pittman (1990) in her work on the Proto-Literate period, has elucidated an important assumption underlying considerations of glyptic imagery-that it was neither entirely random nor an entirely personal or individual expression. She makes it clear that only after accepting this assumption can one address what types of information the imagery might have contained. While we will never know for certain the meanings of messages conveyed by glyptic art, I believe that it is feasible to explore the possible types of information carried. In this paper I want to explore types of information relating to group identification and in particular, ethnic identification. I will outline why I believe cylinder seals as an artifact type and their imagery in particular, are well-suited for consideration as markers of group identification, focusing on greater Mesopotamia between c.2600 and 2300 BC. A methodology for studying this material will be presented and the issue of ethnic identity will be addressed. I will not consider the glyptic art per se in this paper, rather I hope to show that a systematic study of the glyptic imagery of this time and place, with the aim of recognizing regional styles, would increase our understanding of social and cultural processes.

The two integral components of a cylinder seal, the seal itself and the imagery carved on the seal, are both important in considering the issue of group identity. The seal is a spool-shaped object usually made of stone and pierced through its center, with the imagery carved on its outside surface. This cylinder would be rolled across a clay surface leaving an impression of the image. Because the cylinder seal as an artifact type was in existence for thousands of years it is necessary to make the point that its function and appearance were not static over time and that the changing nature of the seal makes any consideration dependent on its context. I also recognize that the cylinder seal is multifunctional and can operate in more than one symbolic system at a time. With this said, I would like to consider the function of the cylinder seal as emblem in the context of mid-third millennium greater Mesopotamia.

Dave Davis (1985) in a study of hereditary emblems, has defined emblems as objects or representations that convey overt information about identity or group membership. Examples include objects such as flags, and representations such as a coat of arms. These objects and representations are recognized as emblems because specific situations exist where the referent, such as a political group or family is known. This knowledge which links the emblem to group or individual or both can be textual or word of mouth. In situations where this knowledge is not readily attainable, such as often is the case in an archaeological context, the identification of emblematic artifacts is clearly much more difficult. One way of identifying an object as emblem is to examine the social context of its use.

It has been suggested that certain social contexts such as instability in a society give rise to the use of emblems. Fear, intergroup competition, and the need for cooperation to attain certain political, social, or economic goals can all create a strong sense of group affiliation. The period under consideration, c.2600-2300 BC, witnessed the significant political reorganization from Early Dynastic independent city-states to the centralized Akkadian empire, albeit a much more complex process than can be described here. While it is impossible to reconstruct in detail the course of events of these three centuries, texts and archaeological evidence seem to indicate that it was a time of instability. Historical inscriptions such as those documenting the Lagash-Umma border conflict, certain economic texts from Shuruppak, and militaristic depictions in art, support the assumption that it was a time of conflict particularly among the city-states of southern Mesopotamia. This conflict culminated in the consolidation of power by Sargon of Akkad and the constant struggle of his descendants to maintain power.

Heightened or newly established contact between groups can also promote the use of emblems. The mid-third millennium was a time of the appearance of urban centers and states in Syria and northern Mesopotamia as evidenced by texts from Ebla and archaeologically by the emergence of fortified centers. Contact between these polities and those of the south whether military or via trade had an affect on the residents, in some cases seen through the adoption of southern Mesopotamian models for material culture. Emblems may have been developed in response to social and economic tensions between spatially defined groups and may have been used as part of a strategy to deal with pressures brought on by changing political and social situations.

Greater Mesopotamia at this time seems to me a period ripe for the use of emblems. The cylinder seal is a particularly well-suited candidate for emblematic artifact since its visibility and connection with an individual can serve to mark that individual's group affiliation. In the mid-third millennium there is evidence that seals were worn on the chest, wrist, and waist often it seems attached to pins. Inlays from Mari and Nippur as well as the location of seals in burials from Ur show this. As body ornaments, seals have the potential to reinforce group affiliation among those wearing a certain type, and social distance from those who were not wearing that type. Seals could have been used to express or promote within group corporateness in reference to outsiders such as other competing polities.

There are several levels of perception with seals such as color, shape, and imagery which could all conceivably carry information about the owner or user. In a brief study, Leonard Gorelick and John Gwinnett (1990) examined the relationship between material and seal as social emblem and status symbol. They saw the wearing of seals as a symbolic pledge to god and country which served to facilitate social control by enhancing social cohesiveness and the status quo. They concluded that an increase over time in the proportion of seals made from hard stones - a highly desirable status symbol in itself - was related to the increasing value of the seal in reinforcing political ideology. While the consideration of seal as emblem is important, the idea is not adequately developed. In addition, the study covers three thousand years of the cylinder seals use and does not really take into account the changing nature of the seal. In a much more limited and therefore successful study of Ur III period seals, Irene Winter (1987) was able to make a similar point about the relationship between seal owner and political system. She argued that the limited repertoire of the imagery of this period was standardized in order to demarcate formally the place and authority of the seal owner within the administrative hierarchy.

I want to focus on the images carved on a seal, seen most clearly in impression, which may carry information about the personal identity or social group affiliations of individuals. The two related parts of the imagery, style and iconography, can be examined. The concept of style has been directly related to identity formation, in particular through theories of information exchange and boundary formation. Style can be defined as "the formal similarities among artifacts that can be related to factors other than raw material availability or mechanical efficiency" (Davis 1983: 55). While stylistic variability has been analyzed to define space-time systematics, style has also been viewed as a component of human activity, most notably in the information-exchange theory in which style functions in cultural systems as an avenue of communication. As introduced by Martin Wobst (1977) and expanded on by Polly Wiessner (1990), the idea that style can be one way through which people negotiate their personal and social identity vis-a-vis others is pertinent. In this view style can also help to maintain social boundaries. Seals may be one category of artifact which carry stylistic messages about identity through their imagery. While stylistic analysis has always been an integral part of glyptic studies used most frequently for establishing chronological divisions, recently style has also been used to gain insight into social processes. Michelle Marcus (1996) in a study of the Iron age seals from Hasanlu has used style as one means of better understanding the social organization of Hasanlu, as well as for reconstructing relations between northwestern Iran and the major centers of the early first millennium Near East.

The other component of the image, the iconography or subject matter, may also be linked to identity. Certain subjects may be used by some groups while others may not. In a study relevant to my undertaking, Pierre Amiet (1960) presented a very brief analysis of the use of two iconographic elements, the god navigating a god boat and the lion-headed eagle, in the glyptic art of mid third millennium Mesopotamia. He observed that the subject of the god navigating a god boat was more prevalent in northern Mesopotamia while the lion-headed eagle appeared more frequently in the glyptic of the south. He concluded that these images which were commonly used in the Early Dynastic period, were eliminated or absorbed in the Akkadian period.

The methodology for studying glyptic art in terms of its relationships to group identification combines tools of art history and anthropology. The first step is to delineate the data to be used and how these data will be managed. The visual information carried on seals by the designs incised on their surfaces can be valued both as intrinsic works of art and as documents of social issues. As works of art, seals are subject to the most basic tool of art history-a formal study of the imagery consisting of a systematic analysis of iconography and style. The results of such a study permit one to consider the role the imagery might have within a social framework. Stylistic analysis, as a way of characterizing relationships among works of art, has the potential to provide a classification of the corpus into different groups. These stylistic groups can then be evaluated as potential regional groups. In a study of group identity, the definition of groups is obviously key. If a stylistic group coincides with a geographical region it may be considered a regional style. The identification of a potentially distinctive group, through a constellation of types and styles, is the first step in identifying material markers of group identity. While regional style is an important part in this study, it is only one variable of many which could be considered. Before a thorough evaluation of group identity, as many other variables as possible such as political organization, religion, body ornamentation, cuisine, textual evidence, and other types of material culture should be considered.

I would now like to focus on one type of group identity about which an emblem can carry information-ethnic identity, or an individual's membership in an ethnic group. An ethnic group can be defined as a group who view themselves as having a common ancestry, who usually posses a common language, and who are unified by construction of a past history (Emberling 1997:304). Based on Frederick Barth's (1969) pioneering work in social anthropology which rejects the equation of race, culture and language, the notion that a person's identity comes both from ascription by outsiders and identification by ethnic group members themselves is critical in ethnic identification. In this model a single cultural trait could no longer be used to define an ethnic group, rather it became necessary to identify specific features that were significant to the members of the group. In order to do this, a potentially distinctive group needs to be defined and its social and geographical boundaries then established. Only after this has been done can the significance of an artifact be evaluated through an examination of its context.

While a linguistic group is not an ethnic group, language is one means of defining a potential group. Unfortunately, the traditional identification of language with ethnicity is common practice in Mesopotamian studies and linguistic affiliation is commonly viewed as the primary marker of group identity for the third millennium. While language is not the sole distinguishing feature of an ethnic group it certainly can be one of the features and in my mind a very powerful one. An examination of language distribution can therefore be beneficial in determining ethnic groups and especially in establishing possible boundaries of regions. It is possible to give a very general notion of the area over which languages were used in third millennium greater Mesopotamia. In this paper I will consider language as another variable in defining groups while acknowledging the difficulties inherent in this approach.

The geographic limits of greater Mesopotamia are defined here as the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Zagros Mountains to the east, the Persian Gulf to the south, and the Arabian Desert to the southwest. By the mid-third millennium different language groups can be identified which, although overlap occurs, are associated with regions: Sumerian speakers in the south, Akkadian speakers in the north, Elamite speakers in the east, and various Semitic speakers in the north and northwest. Linguistic borders are far from clear but the situation continues to change with continued excavation especially in Syria. Seals have also been found from all of these areas and similarities and differences in style and iconography have often been noted. What is lacking however is a thorough and systematic study of these seals. Recent work by Donald Matthews (1997) on glyptic styles of Syrian seals has demonstrated a wide variety. And while it is often stated that the subject matter of mid-third millennium seals are dominated by two themes: the combat and banquet scenes, other themes do exist. Piotr Steinkeller (1992) in a discussion of the depiction of myths on Early Dynastic and Sargonic seals, states that the temporal and geographic distribution of the motifs under consideration supports the identification of these myths as Akkadian. He sees these motifs found predominately on seals from northern Babylonia, the Diyala Region, and Mari and rare in southern Babylonia as correlating with the temporal and spatial perimeters of the political and cultural influence of the Akkadians.

Finally, I wish to address the validity of such a study and of addressing the issue of ethnicity. In recent years, rejection of certain assumptions and concepts has made it difficult to even raise the question of ethnicity. But while I flatly refute the direct equation of material culture to people, I do believe there are many layers to the issue of ethnic identity and that it may be useful to address these clearly and systematically. By rejecting the possibility of seeing greater issues in the material we are in fact reverting back to the culture-historical paradigm wherein analyses of materials are used only for elucidating chronological concerns. I believe that systematic analysis coupled with a thorough consideration of the issue of ethnicity is a feasible and worthwhile endeavor. The result of my study of the glyptic art of mid-third millennium greater Mesopotamia will hopefully be the recognition of regional characteristics in the style and iconography. Nancy Leinwand (1992) has recently undertaken a similar task for the seal impressions from Kultepe level II with promising results. Using visual analysis aided by textual evidence she identified certain stylistic and iconographic features such as the god in the form of a bull, animal fill ornament, and a striated carving style as being Anatolian while other features such as the horned crown and the presentation scene as being Mesopotamian. While Leinwand was fortunate to have textual evidence to work with, her conclusions do lend support to the assumption that seal imagery can be one fruitful avenue for the investigation of group identity.

References Cited

Amiet, P.
1960 Les éléments sumériens et akkadiens du répertoire iconographique de Mésopotamie. Genava 8:297-300.

Barth, F.
1969 Introduction. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. F. Barth, ed. Pp. 1-38. Boston: Little Brown.

Davis, D. D.
1983 Investigating the Diffusion of Stylistic Innovations. Advances in Anthropological Method and Theory 6:53-89.

1985 Hereditary Emblems: Material Culture in the Context of Social Change. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 4:149-76.

Emberling, G.
1997 Ethnicity in Complex Societies: Archaeological Perspectives. Journal of Archaeological Research 5(4):295- 344.

Gorelick, L., and A. J. Gwinnett
1990 The Ancient Near Eastern Cylinder Seal as Social Emblem and Status Symbol. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 49(1):45-56.

Leinwand, N.
1992 Regional Characteristics in the Styles and Iconography of the Seal Impressions of Level II Kültepe. JANES 21:141-172.

Marcus, M.
1996 Emblems of Identity and Prestige: The Seals and Sealings from Hasanlu, Iran Commentary and Catalog. Philadelphia: The University Museum University of Pennsylvania.

Matthews, D.
1997 The Early Glyptic of Tell Brak, Cylinder Seals of Third Millennium Syria. Fribourg.

Pittman, H.
1990 The Glazed Steatite Glyptic Style: The Structure and Function of an Image system. PhD, Columbia University.

Steinkeller, P.
1992 Early Semitic Literature and Third Millennium Seals with Mythological Motifs. Literature and literary language at Ebla. P. Fronzaroli, ed. Pp. 243-275. Quaderni di s semitistica. Florence: Dipartimentodi linguistica Universita di Firenze.

Wiessner, P.
1990 Is there a unity to style? The Uses of Style in Archaeology. M. Conkey and C. Hastorf, eds. Pp. 105-112. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winter, I.
1987 Legitimation of Authority through Image and Legend: Seals Belonging to Officials in the Administrative Bureaucracy. The Organization of Power: Aspects of Bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East. M. Gibson and R. Biggs, eds. Pp. 69-116. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations 46. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Wobst, H. M.
1977 Stylistic Behavior and Information Exchange. For the Director: Research Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin. C.E. Cleland, ed. Pp. 317-42. Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan 61. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

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