Seal use in fifth century B.C. Nippur, Iraq: A study of seal selection and sealing practices in the Mura\v s\cx u Archive

Linda Beth Bregstein, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation presents an analysis of seal use in the Murasu Archive, excavated by the University of Pennsylvania at Nippur (Iraq) in 1893. The more than 800 tablets of the archive are all private, legal documents relating to the business dealings of the Murasu "firm" that date from the middle of the reign of Artaxerxes I through the reign of Darius II (454-404 B.C.). There are 657 different seal impressions, made from roughly equal numbers of cylinder seals, stamp seals and metal finger-rings. The compositional and iconographic groups into which the seal impressions are divided include contest, narrative, and worship scenes, scenes with animals, winged animals and composite monsters, and rings that feature non-Near Eastern imagery that originates in the Hellenized West.^ The first aspect of seal use considered is whether the seals people selected reflected any personal information about their office, title, socio-economic status, ethnic background, family relations, or professional association. The captions written beside the seal impressions provide the information about the name, patronym, and title or office of each sealer that is necessary for such an examination. In general, although certain groups were predisposed toward particular motifs or seal types, the motifs selected by the seal owners could not be connected to the type of personal information recorded in the texts. A notable exception was the use of stamp seals featuring the image of a particular composite monster by witnesses attached to the Murasu firm.^ The second aspect of seal use, sealing practices, includes a study of the ways in which witnesses, authorizing officials, and principal parties sealed--or otherwise marked--legal contracts. Principal parties regularly marked certain transaction types (specifically, debts) by the impression of their fingernails rather than their seals, for fingernail impressions conveyed a specific juridical nuance relating to a debtor's personal obligation to his creditor.^ In general, on the Murasu tablets, seal impressions did not function as markers of personal identity; rather their function was to demonstrate that principal parties agreed to the terms of the contract, that witnesses were present, and that the tablet was authentic and legally valid. ^

Subject Area

Language, Ancient|Art History|History, Ancient

Recommended Citation

Bregstein, Linda Beth, "Seal use in fifth century B.C. Nippur, Iraq: A study of seal selection and sealing practices in the Mura\v s\cx u Archive" (1993). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9413807.