Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Art and Not-Art : Mesopotamian Cylinder Seals

A cylinder seal, and the impression produced when the seal is rolled over wet clay. 
Image from:


I wanted to provide a simple answer to the seemingly simple question: why is it that Mesopotamian cylinder seals are treated as 'art' by archaeologists upon excavation, when the people who made and used them most likely did not see them as art? When a cylinder seal is excavated, it is generally sent to an art historian, who will analyse the carved image on it to try to identify the scene and figures depicted. Seals frequently feature in catalogues of ancient art, among descriptions and images of relief sculptures and frescoes. Yet seals, and the images which they produced by being rolled over wet clay, were not treated as art by the Mesopotamians: they served a purely administrative function, namely to identify the owner or sender of the object (ceramic container, roll of fabric, etc) on which the image was impressed. They were mass-produced and mechanically-produced objects serving an economic function.1 The people making them were almost certainly not seen as artists, rather as craftsmen. The variety of images found on cylinder seals (within a certain corpus of scenes, usually ritual- or hunting- related) is a result of the need for different individuals and institutions to be distinguishable and recognisable from these images, and has little to do with artistic expression.

An example of a ceramic container featuring the impression of a seal on its handles: a Judahite pot with 'lmlk' stamp, perhaps a way for the king to collect taxes or to provide supplies to garrisons. 
Image from:,_Jerusalem_(2).JPG/768px-LMLK_seal_(Hebron)._Israel_Museum,_Jerusalem_(2).JPG

The more I thought about this and related questions about ancient objects as currently conceived, the more my reading involved me with the questions 'What is art?', 'What is a work of art?', 'What makes one object a 'work of art' and distinguishes it from non-art objects?', 'What is art for?', which I was reluctant to approach because, well, they're really big questions that I don't feel qualified to answer. However, the research has been fun and therefore, though I don't claim to have the final answer, I wanted to summarise some of what I read and thought.

Claude Monet’s ‘Impression: Sunrise’ – undoubtedly a work of art. 
Image from:

Definitions and properties of art defines 'art' as: 'the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance'.

Some have tried to be more specific, identifying some properties of art (these are from Gaut 2000):2  
'(1) possessing positive aesthetic properties;
(2) being expressive of emotion;
(3) being intellectually challenging;
(4) being formally complex and coherent;
(5) having the capacity to convey complex meanings;
(6) exhibiting an individual point of view;
(7) being original;
(8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill;
(9) belonging to an established artistic form;
(10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art.'

I will now consider some of Gaut's numbered properties of art in relation to Mesopotamian seals:

1) The seals certainly have aesthetic properties – the designs are impressively intricate given the small size of the object (about the size of a wine bottle cork, usually smaller), the materials used can be very beautiful (the simplest ones are in clay but others were made of lapis lazuli or other precious stones, and even gold), the scenes are often engaging. Some seals were in fact worn as ornaments (there is a hole down the middle of them so they could be worn on a pin fastened to one's clothes -3 in those cases, they served a similar role as an ornate brooch.

7) That which is mass-produced cannot be considered art: art is original and unique. The works produced at Dafen, the "art factory village" outside Shenzhen, in southern China where teams of artists mechanically reproduce hand-painted replicas of any painting imaginable,4 cannot be considered art: they are imitations of art. Their relation to art is rather like that of the real world to Plato's Forms. It would be interesting to find out whether the people producing these paintings consider themselves to be artists or something else, perhaps craftsmen.

Dafen village: ‘artists’ at work. 
Image from:

Marcel Duchamp argued against the idea that the work of art should be a unique product of an artist's labour, which may lead us to think of our seals as art, but at the heart of his work there seems to be a strong sense of art being that which the artist intends to be art (point 10) - and here, we get onto the question of the intention of those making cylinder seals.

9) If art is only that which belongs to an established art form, how did art first begin, and how do new forms of art emerge? There is a strong argument that art can be recognised as such 'only after the practice of art making developed and the term was coined' and therefore 'those who made first art could not have thought of themselves as doing so; not, at least, in the way that a contemporary artist can describe herself as an art maker and conceive of her actions under that description'.5 Can we say that there was a concept of art in 3rd millennium Mesopotamia? Scholars happily talk of 'Mesopotamian art', 'the aim of Mesopotamian art', the artistic style and media and themes of art in different regions of the ancient Near East, of elite art in contrast to the art of 'the common individual and family'.6 Yet, to my knowledge, there is no Sumerian or Akkadian (the languages of Mesopotamia) word for 'art', and therefore it is anachronistic to speak of 'Mesopotamian art' and to treat cylinder seals as art.

The difficulty of defining art

None of Gaut's properties listed above is completely uncontroversial, and possible exceptions can be found for each. For example, against (1): Duchamp insisted that his urinal, Fountain, was selected for its lack of aesthetic features. On the other hand, many things that we would not call 'art' are able to provide us with an aesthetic experience, including an impressive landscape and a beautifully-crafted utilitarian object.

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’: not obviously aesthetic. 
Image from:

It is useful to remember that 'art' is not 'a class of objects existing in the world, to be identified and circumscribed', but a category of western 'thought and practice',7 and therefore a relatively recent concept:8 it can be traced back to eighteenth century Europe.9 Given that artists like to challenge our conception of what constitutes art (which ties in with points 3 and 7), its definition is liquid and ever-changing. So how are we able to say of anything: 'That's art' and 'That's not'; and how do we exhibit certain works in museums and galleries but exclude others? To find a possible answer to this question, the following section is necessary.

Art for art’s sake

Another property of art which is frequently mentioned is its lack of practical function: art does not help us find or prepare food, it does not clothe us or protect us from the weather, it is essentially useless. This property that we ascribe to art is one which dates back to the 19th century, when the slogan 'Art for art's sake' was born, as artists argued that art has 'its own intrinsic value and should not have to be made to satisfy any edifying, utilitarian, or moral function':10 art should be produced for itself, not for the public or the Academies, not mingled with patriotism or other programmatic motives.
With this in mind, how should we treat works produced before the slogan 'Art for art's sake' became ingrained in the minds of artists and the public? Certainly, much of that artwork can be seen to have been produced to serve a function: works were not intended purely for contemplation. Instead, some served to glorify patrons, others were intended to bring myths and biblical stories to life for those who could not read, yet others 'offered moral education, or communicated personal feelings and ideas'; but what made them art was 'the way in which they harnessed aesthetic effects, ones generated by the whole, to the realization of their various utilitarian functions'.11 The aesthetic qualities of these works, which make them art, was vital to their intended practical purpose. On this basis, seals, whose aesthetic qualities (scenes depicted, motifs featured, materials used, size) was essential to their purpose as administrative tools, can indeed be considered art.

Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Liberty leading the people’: politics disguised as art? 
Image from:ène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg

What strikes me most is the implication that art became self-conscious from the 19th century. This becomes more obvious in theories of art that seek to define art in a modern age (rather than finding criteria to define certain ancient works as art). For example, Macgaffey writes that an object becomes a work of art when it is treated by the public and art critics in a way that 'contrasts with the behaviours appropriate to non-art': when it is discussed by an art critic as art, and exhibited in a museum or gallery as art.12 This explains the presence in art galleries and museums of objects that are not obviously art (answering the question set aside above): Alan Kaprow's 'Yard', 1961, essentially a pile of tyres in front of a museum, is art, 'whereas the same pile in a service station is not'; Duchamp's Fountain is a urinal until it is exhibited in a gallery, where it becomes art. Kaprow and Duchamp can call themselves 'artists', without having any traditional artistic skill (such as those associated with painting or sculpture; in opposition to Gaut’s property n.8 - cf. the frequent reaction by the public to modern or contemporary art: 'My five-year-old son could have done that!'). In contrast, a highly-skilled sculptor employed by an Assyrian king to create scenes glorifying the monarch's power over men and devotion to the gods perhaps has less claim to the title 'artist', because his work was regarded in the same way and produced the same reaction as the impressive architecture of the palace in which it was housed, his lush gardens filled with exotic animals, the expensive sacrifices he made to the gods. It was not treated in a way that differed from non-art. The same is true for Mesopotamian cylinder seals.

Fontana’s slashed canvas. 
Image from:


I remember seeing Lucio Fontana’s ‘Spatial Concept: Expectations’ of 1960 at the MoMA13 five or six years ago and feeling rather cross that a slashed but otherwise plain canvas could be worth billions of dollars and be considered art. Later, I read a little about it and started to appreciate its importance (though its price tag still bewilders me slightly). Meanwhile, I do find the craftsmanship of Mesopotamian cylinder seals absolutely stunning, and I am a little reluctant to call them ‘administrative tools’ rather than art because they are so much prettier than a lot of works we happily call art. Perhaps it’s because the title ‘art’ has such expansive associations, and we want to ascribe it to things that are somehow extraordinary. But the line between art and non-art needs to be drawn somewhere, and I do feel uncomfortable calling ‘art’ objects which would not have been considered such by the people who made and used them. Even though my priority turns out to be the avoidance of anachronisms, I’ll forever gawp ‘Ooooh, pretty’ when I encounter these seals at the British Museum and elsewhere.

Ultimately, the most realistic conclusion is perhaps that illustrated in the following diagram: 

Image from:•instrument/un-common/

How do you think art should be defined? Do you see ancient functional objects as art? Do you think some works in museums and galleries should not be considered to be art? For what reason?


2. B. Gaut, 2000. ‘Theories of Art Today’.
3. See Leonard Woolley's excavation reports of the Royal Cemetery of Ur
5. S. Davies, 1997. ‘First Art and Art's Definition’.
6. J. Aruz, 2003. 'Art of the First Cities: the third millennium bc from the Mediterranean to the Indus'.
11. Davies, see above.
12. Macgaffer, see above.


  1. Perhaps I have an idealised view of the past, but a lot of simple objects seem to have been made with more attention to their aesthetic value, maybe because more human capital was involved in their production and craftsmen can't help but become artists when they master their skill to such a high level. Very interesting thought, really enjoyed reading this!

    1. Hi Maria, I'm glad you enjoyed this post. Thank you for your comment; I've been thinking about it and wanted to offer a reply:
      It is difficult to know how much attention people of the past gave to simple objects because only a very small sample of objects used in the past survive for archaeologists to find. Objects made of wood, leather, textiles and other organic materials are very fragile and only rarely stand the test of time. These materials are likely to have been the ones that simple, everyday objects were made of, and it is not possible for us to know how plain or how decorated they were. If you look around your home now, how many of your everyday items do you think would survive for an archaeologist to find in the future, and what picture do you think they would get of your life? For example, the ordinary pencil or biro you use for your weekly grocery shopping and other notes wouldn't make it, but the expensive fountain pen you were given for your 18th birthday and which you only use for thank-you letters might do. An archaeologist might think you did all your writing with that beautiful pen, and conclude that all writing utensils were as carefully crafted! Even clay items such as jars are tricky, because they are more likely to survive if they have been fired and not exposed to acidic soil. That means that an expensive, highly decorated (and therefore fired) bowl that has been made by a luxurious manufacturer as an offering to the dead and is placed in the stone-cut tomb of a village chieftain is more likely to be preserved than the everyday, plain, home-made bowl that most people in that same village would have used for their daily needs and which were simply discarded in rubbish heaps (full of acidic components) when no longer suitable for use, and a replacement quickly made in the household... so the archaeologist would have only a limited impression of the range of decoration of objects in that village, especially of simple ordinary objects, and of how much human capital was involved in the production of the different types.
      I think it's also significant that cylinder seals are not simple objects: they are administrative tools used by a minority; they were sometimes made using semi-precious stones or even out of gold; they were crafted by professionals who were able to visualise a detailed image and create it in reverse into a cork-sized-and-shaped surface. They may have been aesthetically impressive, but that doesn't mean that the people who created them put greater emphasis on aesthetic value than we do, and nor does that make those objects 'art', I think.
      I do like the idea of very skilled craftsmen being, basically, artists! I remember seeing a clip that showed the making of an Hermes bag, another that showed how Patek Philippe watch is put together, and others showing contemporary boutique jewellers at work, and in all three cases being absolutely awed by the skill of the maker.
      I'd be interested to hear what you think of my reply! In any case, I hope you continue to enjoy this blog.