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Gordion Seals and Sealings: Individuals and Society

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

Gordion Seals and Sealings: Individuals and Society

By Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre. Pp. xv + 179, figs. 124, CD-ROM 1. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia 2005. $59.95. ISBN 1-931707-82-0 (cloth).

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Over the many years of American excavation at Gordion (modern Yassıhöyük)—from 1950 to the present day under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania Museum—a number of seals and seal impressions ranging in date from the Bronze Age to the Roman period have come to light. This rich material, only a part of which has been previously published, now receives comprehensive treatment in the monograph under review. The corpus consists of 114 artifacts, with the greatest number coming from Phrygian (47) and Hellenistic levels (33). Fewer have been registered in Bronze Age (14) and Roman-period contexts (17). One seal is dated to the Early Iron Age, and two are unclassified. The book is organized in three parts. A detailed catalogue of seals (ch. 3) is preceded by the history of Gordion (ch. 1) and an overview of the seal evidence (ch. 2). Line drawings of the pieces appear as text figures; the photographs are presented on CD-ROM.

In chapter 1, the author presents a useful overview of the history of Gordion and the results of the excavations over the past two decades, thus providing the necessary historical and archaeological framework for the study of the glyptic material. Perhaps the most significant issue at hand is the redating of the citadel destruction from 700 B.C.E. to 800 B.C.E. (10) and the subsequent shift in dates for the Early Phrygian (950–800 B.C.E.) and Middle Phrygian (800–540 B.C.E.) periods. Recent excavation results have also changed interpretation of the Hellenistic-period settlements. The second Hellenistic architectural phase is now associated with the influx of Celtic tribes, the Galatians (16–18), and the evidence from the third Hellenistic construction phase now indicates that the site was not, as previously thought, abandoned between 189 B.C.E. and the time of Roman settlement in the late first century C.E. (17). What one generally misses in chapter 1, however, is the mention of contexts in which seals were found and how the seals tie into the overall archaeological evidence. For example, in the summary given on the Roman occupation levels at Gordion, the cemeteries are barely mentioned, although burials are the primary context for the Roman seal rings (13 of the 17 Roman-period seals come from intact graves).

Chapter 2 begins with a short introduction on the use of seals. Here, the multiple, often simultaneous functions of seals, be they ornamental, semiotic, administrative, or amuletic, are briefly described (19). However, the material evidence of seal use from Gordion itself is scarce. There are comparatively few sealed artifacts, apart from pottery, and there seems to be a complete lack of container, jar, and door sealings (23–5, 27–9). In the “overview of seal evidence” that follows, emphasis is placed on the ways in which seals “contribute to our understanding of Gordion’s history and development through time” and on the knowledge gained about its individuals and society (20). The material is arranged and discussed chronologically. No seals appear to date earlier than the second millennium. Although the author has tentatively dated a cylinder seal (cat. no. 1) to the Early Bronze Age by comparison with Jemdet Nasr–period seals of third-millennium Mesopotamia (33), the simple cross-hatching pattern is not specific to this period. Rather, a date in the second millennium (Middle–Late Bronze Age), as also suggested by the author (33), is likely, on account of the seal material (glazed “composition” sometimes known as faience) and comparisons with Mittanian seals (see B. Salje, “Der ‘Common Style’ der Mitanni-Glyptik und der Glyptik der Levante und Zyperns in der späten Bronzezeit,” Baghdader Forschungen 11 [1990] 74 [Netzmuster], 226, nos. 45–50).

A prevailing Hittite influence during the Middle and Late Bronze Age is attested. Attention is drawn to the amuletic function of two seals from the “Hittite cemetery” (cat. nos. 2, 3), one of which was found in a child’s grave (see also M.J. Mellink, A Hittite Cemetery at Gordion [Philadelphia 1956] 42; and H.G. Güterbock, “Seals and Sealing in Hittite Lands,” in K. De-Vries, ed., From Athens to Gordion [Philadelphia 1980] 51). One cone-shaped bulla of the type known from Hattusa and other Hittite sites bearing a hieroglyphic seal impression predating the Empire period (cat. no. 10) was found in a secondary context, but it is unclear if it was sealed in Gordion or sent from elsewhere (39). Interestingly, the only seals registered for the Early Iron Age (1100–950 B.C.E.) and the following Early Phrygian period (950–800 B.C.E.) are two scarabs with Egyptianizing design (cat. nos. 15, 16). As yet, no Phrygian glyptic is preserved from the time predating the destruction of the citadel mound in ca. 800 B.C.E.

Of the 11 seals (cat. nos. 19–29; cat. no. 30 is a terracotta stamp, probably a bread stamp [50]; cat. no. 31 is an incised piece of clay; cat. no. 32 is a stamped potsherd) dating to the Middle Phry-gian period (800–540 B.C.E.), the floruit of the Phrygian empire, three have been identified as imports from Syria or the Levant (cat. nos. 19, 23, 27), while one scaraboid seal with a hieroglyphic inscription is an Egyptian import (cat. no. 22). The author also sees close connections between Gordion and the south on four further seals (cat. nos. 20, 24–26), three of which she compares to the “Horse group” of North Syria (cat. nos. 24–26), thus concluding that foreign influence on the glyptic of this period is dominant: “What is clear, at any rate, is that during the course of the Middle Phrygian period, seals made their way to Gordion from the south and perhaps began to be manufactured at Gordion itself as well” (24). It is important to note, however, that three of the seals that have been assigned to the Syrian sphere of influence (23) have parallels with Phrygian seal shapes and designs. Included among these is the well-known ivory pedestal stamp seal surmounted by a lion (cat. no. 20). Two others, a grooved pedestal seal and a conoid seal (cat. nos. 24, 26) with designs showing linear quadrupeds (including a stag), can be compared to similar schematic, linear-style Phrygian seals from Bogazköy and elsewhere (R.M. Boehmer and H.G. Güterbock, Glyptik aus dem Stadtgebiet von Bogazköy [Berlin 1987], nos. 268–72, 275; 87, figs. 65–68). And, indeed, Boehmer has drawn attention to the diversity of style and design on Phrygian seals of the eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E. (Boehmer and Güterbock 1987, 86). Together with the other seals classified as Phrygian—among them a handsome bone pedestal seal with striding equid and bird (cat. no. 21), as well as two with purely linear designs (cat. nos. 28, 29)—Middle Phrygian seal production appears to be better represented than assumed by the author.

In the Late Phrygian period (540–330 B.C.E.), when Gordion was under Achaemenid rule, there is a marked increase in the number of seals found (22 seals and seven seal impressions). The glyptic is characterized by differences in style and iconography, as well as in the use of varied seal materials (25). Attested are a great number of Achaemenid seals, some Egyptian imports, a Neobabylonian seal, and Greek-style seals. The Achaemenid presence also influenced local seal carvers, as exhibited by a number of seals discussed (25–7). Only two sealings are preserved: one sealed tab (cat. no. 55) and a sealing on wood, perhaps a box sealing (cat. no. 56) (70). Although the actual evidence for seal use is meager, an increase in bureaucracy and administrative activity during the time of Achaemenid rule can be assumed based on seal use elsewhere in the empire (26–8, 31).

The seal material from the Hellenistic levels (330–150 B.C.E.) is less elaborate than that from the preceding Late Phrygian period (27–9). Seven seals appear to be local productions with simple linear designs (cat. nos. 63–69). The introduction of finger rings is notable. Seven rings made of gold and silver depict the “Kybele-in-shrine” figure or abbreviated versions of this motif (27; cat. nos. 74–80). Hellenic motifs are represented on two bronze rings showing a winged griffin or lion and amphora (cat. nos. 81, 82) and a scaraboid with a figure that may be Herakles (cat. no. 70). Included in the Hellenistic material are also three sealed loom weights, seven stamped potsherds, two bronze stamps (cat. nos. 71, 72), and a stamp recut from a marble statue fragment (cat. no. 73). On the basis of the marble stamp (cat. no. 73), a surface find of uncertain date (76), which the author postulates may be a bread stamp, it is suggested “that cooking practices may have changed, including the communal use of bread ovens rather than individual hearths” (27). Furthermore, it is suggested that this stamp (cat. no. 73) “might therefore attest to a different societal organization than had pertained in earlier periods” (27). This is highly conjectural, however, since there is no evidence presented here to support such a hypothesis.

The Roman (1–500 C.E.) seal material consists almost exclusively of finger rings (16 of 17 seals), most of which were found in burials. A wide range of subjects is represented (deities, animals, hand holding an ear, clasped hands). A finger ring with a Hebrew inscription, probably a personal name, attests to a Jewish presence at Gordion in the fourth century C.E. (29; cat. no. 108).

The catalogue (ch. 3) makes up the largest part of the publication. Here the individual pieces are thoroughly discussed along with comparative material. Substantial information is also provided on their archaeological context. The author draws on detailed description in the Gordion fieldbooks, references to which are provided.

A weakness of the publication is the visual presentation of the seal material, both in the text figures and in the photographs on the enclosed CD-ROM. First, the layout is not sensible, making an overview of the Gordion seals and seal impressions difficult to obtain. This is partially due to the unusually large scale chosen for illustrating the seal impressions, which are, in fact, miniature objects. Some seal drawings take up an entire page. Also, the scale of the drawings varies dramatically. Finally, there does not seem to be any recognizable advantage to large-scale presentation of the line drawings, since they are quite rudimentary. Nevertheless, the author is to be thanked for undertaking the task of publishing a large corpus of very diverse seal material spanning more than 2,000 years of history at Gordion.

Suzanne Herbordt
Altorientalisches Institut
Universität Leipzig
Klostergasse 5
04109 Leipzig

Book Review of Gordion Seals and Sealings: Individuals and Society, by Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre

Reviewed by Suzanne Herbordt

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Herbordt

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