RELICS FROM IRAQ, dating from 3000 to 1700 B.C.
Clay tablets (2036-1985 B.C.), hematite cylinder-seal(circa 1700 B.C.) and flat stone seal (3000 B.C.)
Date of entry at UNESCO
Country of origin Iraq
Donating country Iraq
Donation made by Iraq on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of UNESCO in 1971.
© Photo: UNESCO. Clay tablets bearing cuneiform writings, dating between 2036 and 1985 B.C.
All rights reserved

Clay tablets

Shown in photo (from left):

- Rectangular clay tablet bearing an adminstrative text concerning state grain revenue, dating from the reign of Shu-sin (2036-2028 B.C.). H 11 x W 7 x D 1,5 cm;

-Rectangular clay tablet bearing an adminstrative text concerning state livestock revenue, dating from the reign of Ishbi-Irra (2017-1985 B.C.). H 9 x W 6 x D 1,5 cm

The apparition of clay tablets dates back to the 4th millennium B.C. and is linked to the birth of the first Sumerian writing, proto-cuneiform writing. These tablets are shaped like small square or rectangular (occasionally round) cushions and are flat on the front and rounded on the back. The technique consisted of tracing the cuneiform characters in the soft clay using a sharp reed. The text was written either in squares or horizontal lines, laid out in one or several columns on the front, back and often sides of the tablet.

The texts written on these tablets were diverse and included administrative, legal, diplomatic, literary or lexicographical content, among others. Depending on the period, their area of origin would vary (Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey) as well as their size, going from 3 to 30 centimeters in height. Certain categories of texts, such as contracts, even had clay envelopes and seal imprints. Clay tablets are fragile and must be constantly handled with great care, without which they could easily crumble.


Shown in photo:

-Flat stone seal bearing carved images of animals and serving as a signature for the owner, dating from 3000 B.C.; Diameter 3 cm

-Hematite cylinder-seal bearing carved images of two figures shown in presence of the sun-god and of the goddess Ishtar, circa 1700 B.C.; Height 2 cm, Diameter: 1 cm

Modern imprints of the patterns engraved on these two seals are visible in the photo including all four archeological pieces.

The cylindrical seal occupies an important place in the art of ancient Mesopotamia as early as the 4th millennium B.C. These seals resemble large, cylindrical beads and have designs – and occasionally cuneiform inscriptions – carved into them, which are used to mark the owner’s objects and official documents. The cylindrical form of the seal is linked to the introduction of writing on clay tablets; the carved seal would be rolled out onto the clay and the resulting pattern, or signature, considered a stamp of authenticity for the document.

The designs, set out as a frieze or a painting-like composition, were rich and varied depending on the period during which they were made. The seals were essentially made of hard or semi-precious stones: hematite, chlorite, limestone, white marble, lapis-lazuli, cornelian, etc. Their size went from a height of 2 to 6 centimeters and a diameter of 1 to 3 centimeters.

One should also note the use of flat fine stone or shell seals, also used as a form of signature. Archaic seals often held stylized animal designs, and measured 3 to 4 centimeters across.

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