Object: Carnelian Seal Stone

Carnelian Seal
Sassanian (Neo-Persian)
Middle East
224 CE – 651 CE
Materials: Stone

This small object is a carnelian seal from the Sassanian Empire. The hard orange or red-colored stone is only 0.75 inches tall, 0.56 inches long, and 0.19 inches wide. The four corners of the stone are cut to create an elongated octagon, with each of the eight sides cut slanted to the back. The back and sides have no carved inscriptions or detail. The front top half contains the design of a small bird (seen in profile) perched on a branch. A smaller branch with leaves is held in the beak of the bird. A small seal is carved (using intaglio) onto the bottom half with two characters surrounded by an oval ring representing either a rope or snake design. The carvings are highly detailed and have a faint black color in the carved portions. The rest of the surface of the seal is polished.

The Sassanian Empire was the last pre-Islamic empire in Iran, succeeding the Parthian Empire. It was ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty and was considered one of the main powers in the Middle East and Western Asia for more than four centuries (between 224 CE and 651 CE) during what was known as “Late Antiquity.” At its height, the Sassanian Empire encompassed modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and parts of Egypt, Turkey, Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

The Sassanian Empire was considered to have been one of the region’s most important and influential cultures. It witnessed what was considered the peak of ancient Iranian civilization, with an economic and cultural revival that resulted in huge advancements in art and science. The Sassanian Empire greatly influenced the Roman civilization as well as Western Europe, Africa, China, and India, and it played a significant role in the development of both European and Asian medieval art.

A seal stone such as this one from the Classics Collection would have functioned like a signature. It was a way to verify the authenticity of all written documents. Wet lumps of clay or wax were positioned on a document, and then the seal would have been pressed into it. The seal impression would then be left to dry; afterwards, it could be sent to its destination. When someone opened the document, the clay or wax seal would have been broken and removed. There were thousands of such seal stones made, as they needed to be unique for each individual or manufacturer.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]


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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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