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  • 1/31/2011

Seals and Sealings in Iranian History

Part 1


IN THE EASTERN IRANIAN LANDS  The bulk of the material known at present is of antiquarian origin and was gathered between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries when European and Russian scholars and collectors turned their attention to these previously unexplored regions.


 SEALS AND SEALINGS IN THE EASTERN IRANIAN LANDS. An overview of Eastern Iranian seals encompasses a vast geographical area, from the eastern borders of the Iranian plateau in present day Afghanistan to the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, where in successive periods Iranian dynasties created kingdoms of great political importance; from the former Soviet territories between the Amu Dary (q.v.) and the Syr-Darya (thus leaving Parthia and Margiana to Persia proper) to Chinese Eastern Turkistan (Xinjiang), and to the steppes to the north of this belt of predominantly settled peoples.

The bulk of the material known at present is of antiquarian origin and was gathered between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries when European and Russian scholars and collectors turned their attention to these previously unexplored regions. The collections assembled by N. F. Petrovskij andB N. Kastalskij from Russian Central Asia, held largely in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, have their counterparts in the large collections in the Indian Museum in Calcutta and in the Peshawar Museum, due respectively to the efforts of General Pearse (Chanda, 1928-29) and of Sir John Hubert Marshall (Callieri, 1997, pp. 17-18), both of whom were representatives of the British presence in India. Likewise, the Central Asian collections in Berlin, Paris, and New Delhi were the fruit of the rapacious explorations in Chinese Turkistan carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Materials from archaeological excavations conducted in a scientific fashion follow the initial collecting efforts in the area, starting with the activities carried out by the British in the Northwest Frontier, the French in Afghanistan, and the Soviets in western Turkistan.

 The collectors’ preference for objects of aesthetic value is, in fact, a handicap in terms of the representational nature of the collections, and artifacts from excavated sites offer a much more reliable picture of the seals used in antiquity. This is well evidenced in the Northwest Frontier when comparing the materials in the Peshawar Museum with finds from the excavations at Taxila (Marshall, 1951, II, pp. 643-49, 677-82).

Progress in the techniques of excavation and retrieval has enhanced the documentation available for the study of seals, in that lumps of clay bearing seal impressions (“sealings” or “bullae”) now find their place among carefully recovered objects. Indeed, most recent sigillographic finds in the eastern Iranian area are clay sealings; the corpus, originally centering on the Sogdian documents discovered on Mount Mug has increased, thanks to the sealings brought to light by archaeological excavations at Chaqalaq-Tepe (Mizuno, 1970) and Dzhiga-Tepe in Bactria, Kanka in Chach, Paikend and Kafir Kala in Sogdiana (see below). These materials represent what remains of ancient archives and which originally sealed batches of merchandise and documents: examples of the latter can also be seen in the Bactrian documents which the looting of Afghan antiquities has brought into the antiquarian market (Sims-Williams, 1997, 2001). While, on the whole, the study of the reverse of the clay sealings cast light on various aspects of sealing practices, the association of the sealings with many of the Bactrian texts will constitute a fundamental contribution to the understanding of the use of seals in everyday life, administration, and trade, as shown in a recent preliminary publication on this topic (Lerner, 2006).

The seals of the eastern Iranian area reflect the composite nature of the region’s culture. On the one hand, this is characterized by the various local traditions and their contacts with South and East Asia and the Hellenistic world; on the other hand, there is the link with the Iranian plateau and its craft traditions, exposed to the influence of the Iranian dynasties from the Achaemenians to the Sasanians that held power in western Asia. Bearing in mind that seals belong to a category of artifacts closely linked to the social status of the owner, including his relationship with the ruling class, the fact that vast areas of Transoxiana, the Hindu Kush, and the northwestern parts of the Subcontinent were included, more or less permanently, within Iranian political entities has fostered the diffusion there of artifacts of the Iranian tradition proper, which have interacted with the craft traditions developed locally.

In the particular case of engraved seal-stones, their production involved highly specialized techniques that the craftsmen could master only after a prolonged apprenticeship.

 The technique of engraving semi-precious stones with drills and emery flourished in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin in pre-Classical and Classical times, giving rise, on the one hand, to the tradition of the Mesopotamian seals, stamps, and cylinders in all their chronological and regional variants, and on the other to the production of intaglios, those refined engraved gems of the Greek and later the Hellenistic World. Other, local traditions of seals in metal or terracotta developed in some regions of the area, including Central Asia. On the whole, therefore, it is easier to follow the development of the various groups of seals than it is with other craft classes.

The Iranian world, beginning with the glyptics of the Achaemenian period, recalls both the Mesopotamian and the Greek traditions, with the Achaemenian cylinders on one side and the so-called Greco-Persian gems on the other. In the Arsacid and Sasanian periods, we see the birth of a local glyptic production germinating from the Mesopotamian stamp seals of the Achaemenian and Seleucid periods. We also see a quantity of intaglios of Hellenistic tradition, probably imported.

In the seals of the eastern Iranian area we find the same craft traditions with regard both to local productions and imported seals. The earliest well-defined glyptic output of the eastern Iranian area goes back to the Bronze Age, with the stamp and cylinder stone seals of the Bactro-Margiana Cultural Complex (Sarianidi, 1976; Winkelmann, 1999), and the coeval copper/bronze compartmented stamp seals, previously known as “Nestorian Seals” due to their frequent cruciform shape (Biscione, 1985; Baghestani, 1997), that were prevalent from the eastern part of the Iranian plateau to Xinjiang (Sinkiang) and Ordos.

To be continued ...

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