Although engraved stones had been used as early as the seventh millennium B.C. to stamp impressions in clay, the invention in the fourth millennium B.C. of carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay allowed the development of more complex seal designs. These cylinder seals, first used in Mesopotamia, served as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on lumps of clay that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions. The seals were often made of precious stones. Protective properties may have been ascribed to both the material itself and the carved designs. Seals are important to the study of ancient Near Eastern art because many examples survive from every period and can, therefore, help to define chronological phases. Often preserving imagery no longer extant in any other medium, they serve as a visual chronicle of style and iconography.
The modern impression of the seal is shown so that the entire design can be seen. The imagery on this seal depicts a so-called contest scene. Two rampant lions are shown with bodies crossed. One attacks a rampant bull and the other attacks a human-headed bull. A reversed bull appears next to a nude bearded hero with one eye. A small rearing bull stands next to him and faces two animals, arranged in a vertical line.
From 1948, on loan by Walter Hauser to the Museum (L.48.49.2); acquired by the Museum in 1955, gift of Walter Hauser, New York.