While carved stones had been used to stamp impressions on clay from as early as the seventh millennium B.C., the invention in the fourth millennium B.C. of carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay allowed the development of complex seal designs. These cylinder seals served as both a kind of amulet and as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on clay masses that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto inscribed clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions. They often were made of precious stones; both the material itself and the carved design were thought to have protective properties. Cylinder seals are important to the study of ancient Near Eastern art because many examples survive from every period; they serve as a visual chronicle of changes in style and iconography.
This seal, depicting a man hunting an ibex in a mountain forest, is an early attempt to represent a landscape in Mesopotamian art. It was made during the Akkadian period (2350–2150 B.C.), during which the iconographic repertory of the seal engraver expanded to include a variety of mythological and narrative subjects that had been unknown. The owner of the seal was Balu-ili, a high court official whose title was Cupbearer.