The Lydians and their World (2010)

by Elspeth R. M. Dusinberre

Lydo-Persian Seals from Sardis

Introduction: Seals, Shapes, and Uses

The seals from Sardis largely date to the Achaemenid Persian period, when Sardis was satrapal capital of this part of the Achaemenid Empire. The Sardian seals were found almost exclusively in graves of the elite.1

Seals can provide a unique entry into understanding ancient societies. Used by individuals or offices for ratification, identification, and ornamentation, they functioned simultaneously as official insignia and indicators of personal taste.2 Here, “seal” refers to an ancient seal tool made of any of a wide variety of hard materials that were or could have been used to seal objects by stamping them or rolling across their surfaces. Seals could come in numerous different shapes; in general, they are divided into stamp seals and cylinder seals, but the stamps come in a very wide variety of shapes. They might be pyramidal stamp seals, like many of those from Sardis; scarab-shaped seals; ovoid seals called scaraboids; tablets; animal-shaped seals; and more. Sometimes a metal ring might be engraved or chased with a design on it as well, allowing it to serve as a stamp seal.

The seals excavated at Sardis come in a wide variety of shapes.3 The most popular shape is the pyramidal stamp seal, of which there are fifteen. Of the nine rings with sealing faces, three are of pure gold, with gold bezels, and six have stones carved in intaglio. Three seals are roughly cylindrical squat stamps that are wider at the top than at the bottom (sealing) surface. Three are cylinder seals. The remaining two seals are suspended from a bracelet and a necklace.

The design on a seal is usually recessed (carved in intaglio) so that it will leave an impression in relief when pressed against wax or clay.4 “Sealing” is the remnant of this activity. “Seal impression” is synonymous with “sealing.” Sometimes we know of seals only through their ancient impressions. A “bulla” is a specially shaped sealing attached to an object or document.5 An “amulet” is an object that has some magical or protective properties, designed to bring health, happiness, and/or good fortune to its wearer.

Impressions might demonstrate seal use in any of the following manners: as a decorative device on pottery; as an administrative device on pottery; as an administrative device on a document or envelope; as an administrative device used for labeling, locking, or ratifying all sorts of other items, such as doors, boxes, baskets, sacks, jars, etc. Seals could be used as we might use a signature, to ratify letters and documents. They could be impressed on clay hearths or on pots. They might seal boxes, jars, or doors against intruders or tampering. They might be impressed on bullae that either served as documents or records in and of themselves, or that were attached to perishable materials such as papyrus or baskets. Indeed, one of the most interesting sets of bullae from Anatolia is roughly contemporaneous with most of the seals from Sardis, the well-known corpus found at Daskyleion.6

It is perhaps an obvious point, but nevertheless worth reiterating: Seals might perform various functions simultaneously. There was a whole range of reasons for making impressions of a seal, some practical, some symbolic, some multivalent. In certain time periods, for instance, seals were applied to pots with a decorative purpose; they might also be applied to pots for administrative reasons, like stamping amphora handles to show the vintage of wine stored within. In this latter instance, the decoration of the amphora was the end result of a practice that had a functional application as well. The same might be true for bread, stamped to distinguish that of one baker from another, but resulting also in attractive (or not) decoration.

Amuletic functions could also be multiple and complicated.7 “Amuletic” strongly implies magical agency, yet it is important to remember that magical or protective properties were also very much practical, functional ones. Indeed, the very practical act of sealing a door shut included essential magical properties as well. Seals could serve additional public functions too, when they were worn as jewelry or served as items of personal or institutional identity or prestige.8 Thus, seal usage was a tremendously complex weave, with seals performing multiple functions simultaneously along a great warp and weft of administrative, magical, protective, ornamental, and semiotic purposes.

How Were They Worn?

Seals that took the form of metal rings seem simply to have been worn as finger rings, and the brief notes from excavations in the tombs of Sardis corroborate this. Other rings with sealstones on them might have the stone in a fixed position or on a swivel, so that it could be worn with the intaglio facing in towards the finger or turned out for use. The placing of seals about bodies in the Sardian tombs, where noted, underscores the beauty of their attachment devices and makes it clear they were worn on the body in places where they could be seen and appreciated, perhaps on leather thongs or silken cords about the neck. Thus, a personal seal was not only something that could be used to signify its owner in practice but could serve as an amulet and/or ornament on its owner’s body simultaneously.

All the seals excavated at Sardis have settings that show they were worn on the body in a visible spot, such as a necklace or a wrist chain, or perhaps pinned to a garment; they were not kept out of sight in a pocket or purse. Many seals have particularly beautiful suspension devices, with elaborate attention paid to the qualities that enhance their value as adornments.9 No. 129 (IAM 4641), for instance, a blue chalcedony pyramidal stamp, has a setting in the shape of two golden ducks' heads rendered with such attention to detail that even individual feathers have been indicated on the backs of their heads (Fig. 1). The highly visible nature of the seals underscores their importance as indicators of individuality. Not only the image carved on a seal but also its very form could convey messages about the person using it, and choosing between different shapes and styles at Sardis was a crucial decision.

  • Fig. 1

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal with gold mounting (No. 129) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)


The seals excavated at Sardis demonstrate a variety of choices available in materials as well as shapes, including such costly items as gold, chalcedony, rock crystal, carnelian, and agate, but also including less expensive matter such as glass paste and bone.10

Seals as Markers of Status and Identity

Most of the seals from Sardis are pyramidal stamp seals and rings and are of such high-prestige materials as gold and chalcedony.

Sardis retained its administrative importance under Persian hegemony, becoming the satrapal seat of Sparda and a primary center for government in western Anatolia. Its seals reflect its importance in the empire in some particularly interesting ways. The seals from Sardis, almost all of which date to the Achaemenid period, demonstrate the cohesion of the elite and the overwhelming adoption of imperial ideology at this satrapal capital. The lack of earlier seals from Sardis and the preponderance of high-status ones in the Persian period reiterate the importance of the Achaemenid administration at this site.

At Sardis we repeatedly see an important phenomenon: official imperial iconography, or selection and arrangement of images, rendered in a local style, or manner of rendering those images (e.g. Figs. 2, 3 (No. 120), 4 (No. 119)). Seal users (the elite) show remarkable conformity of taste in seal imagery, demonstrating an artistic koine that linked the elite at Sardis to imperial authority across ethnic backgrounds. Thus, users embedded themselves in an artistic framework that reinforced their own goals or sense of authority and power.

  • Fig. 2

    Agate cylinder seal in a gold mounting (No. 128) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 3

    Agate (?) weight-shaped seal, perforated but missing its mounting (No. 120) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 4

    Small chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal (No. 119) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)


The concurrent existence of multiple styles at Sardis in the Achaemenid period makes it clear that the inhabitants had choice in the style of their seals. This is an important point. Artistic imagery in the Achaemenid empire operated as an interregional symbolic system, with great and subtle variation on the local level. At Sardis, we find a vibrant atmosphere of artistic choice within the confines of imperial symbolism. Different workshops provided choice for patrons according to their desires; the creation of variety for political ends certainly influenced both artists and patrons alike in the choice of styles.

The seals from Sardis demonstrate that multiple artistic styles existed concurrently at this satrapal capital, even as they did in the imperial Achaemenid Persian capital at Persepolis.11 Some seals are carved in a style more strongly reminiscent of Greek seals: IAM 4570, a scaraboid that formed part of a necklace, shows a feeding ibis that resembles “East Greek” works;12 IAM 4519 is another scaraboid, which shows an Eros figure flying to the right, carved in an archaic Greek style; IAM 4518 is a large chalcedony seal set in a bracelet, with Hermes and Athena carved in a smoothly modeled Greek style probably of the early fourth century (see Meriçboyu, “Lydian Jewelry”).13 Conversely, some seals at Sardis strongly resemble Near Eastern seals: IAM 5133, for instance, is a pyramidal stamp seal showing a Neo-Babylonian worship scene, carved in a Neo-Babylonian style with a winged disk that seems to be a later addition. This seal may be an import from Mesopotamia, just as the three seals mentioned above may be imports from Ionia or the Greek mainland. Three further seals are carved in a schematic, rounded style: IAM 4640 is a glass paste scarab, much corroded, that may originally have formed a ring bezel and shows a human figure; IAM 4522 is a pyramidal stamp seal with a winged human figure; and No. 120 is a weight-shaped seal with a goat and suckling kid (Fig. 3). The great majority of the seals excavated from Sardis reflect imperial Achaemenid Persian iconography and were produced in one of the so-called “Greco-Persian” styles (e.g. Fig. 2 (No. 129), Fig. 3 (No. 120), Fig. 4 (No. 119), and IAM 4528 (Figs. 5, 6), and IAM 4589 (Figs. 7, 8).14

Indicators of this style include: the undisguised use of the drill, especially in intricate spots like animals' paws or the detailing of furniture; a certain broad quality to the modeling, with volumes clearly but often shallowly indicated; and precise edges to figures. The muscles on the haunches of an animal are often shown by two parallel grooves running from the knee back in a curve parallel to the animal's buttock. Striations or grooves indicate folds in clothing. Complex surfaces like wings and manes may be more or less intricately carved, often with shallow parallel lines. Although there are exceptions, most of the seals are uncluttered, with a few figures set off by empty space. These empty fields may be filled with inscriptions or linear signs, but the impression remains of figures set off by space. Ground lines are common but not diagnostic.15

Interestingly, seals of multiple styles might be found in the same tomb. This does not necessarily mean that the same person was using them both, as the tombs were used for multiple interments. But some people certainly had multiple seals carved in different styles. Even in those tombs where the seals were of the same style, multiple shapes might be represented.

  • Fig. 3

    Agate (?) weight-shaped seal, perforated but missing its mounting (No. 120) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 2

    Agate cylinder seal in a gold mounting (No. 128) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 4

    Small chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal (No. 119) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 5

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal, with silver mounting (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 6

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal, with silver mounting, impression (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 7

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 8

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal, impression (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

“Achaemenid Hegemonic” Style at Sardis

The preponderance of the so-called “Greco-Persian” styles in the seals of Sardis raises an important and currently unanswerable question: the ethnicity of seal carvers and users at Sardis. In her perceptive article of 2002, J.E. Gates argued not only that the “persistent and tortured use of the term ‘Greco-Persian’” should be abandoned but that “style...was one element in a tool kit for communicating a fluid notion of identity in the Achaemenid empire.”16 Gates dissected notions of “Persianness” and “Greekness,” highlighting the ways in which these ethnic determinants obscure useful discussion of artifacts as culturally situated and of cultures as situationally fluid. She made a compelling case for regarding artistic style as an inadequate indicator of ethnicity, for the relationship between style and ethnicity is not simple or direct. In most cases we have no idea if seals of “Greco-Persian” style were carved by Greeks for Persians, by Persians for Persians, or by artisans of completely different ethnic and social identities for patrons of equally unknown and/or fluid identities.

The seals from Sardis carved in this style are almost all linked with imperial Achaemenid iconography—the selection of images—and indeed often with iconography associated with high status. They provide compelling support for the suggestion that this style should be seen not as any kind of ethnic indicator, but rather as a newly crafted style designed to indicate the elite status of the user in the Achaemenid hierarchy.17

At Sardis, we repeatedly see an important phenomenon: official iconography rendered in a specific style, with local tastes and preferences perhaps reflected in the selection of imperial images. This provides support for the suggestion that we at last discard the misleading name “Greco-Persian.” I would like to suggest “Achaemenid hegemonic” as a name that is neither ethnically nor geographically situated but rather emphasizes the meaning of this style in its various and fluid sociopolitical contexts.

Excavated seals from Sardis and elsewhere demonstrate the importance of the “Achaemenid hegemonic” style in glyptic art. Ongoing excavation demonstrates that seals of this style were not confined to western Anatolia alone, or to such maritime entrepôts as Kertch, on the Black Sea.18 Moreover, seals of this style could be inscribed not just in Lydian but also in Aramaic.19 Indeed, the artistic style could provide a semiotic link between the Achaemenid elite at sites of great satrapal import, like Sardis and Daskyleion, and those at sites of lesser imperial significance, such as Gordion. Thus, these excavated seals carved in the “Achaemenid hegemonic” style demonstrate the nuanced connections that bound together the Achaemenid elite at its ruling centers, also the strong impact of Achaemenid hegemony on second-tier cities within the cosmopolitan and polyethnic empire.

The iconography of the seals from Sardis carved in “Achaemenid hegemonic” style forms an internally consistent set of images. Favored are lions: Five seals show single lions, one shows a lion and a bull, one a heroic combat with a lion, one an archer scene with a lion, and one a heroic control scene with lions, in which the hero figure grasps two lions by the throat (Figs. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).20 Two seals show winged lions in heraldic groupings.21 This predilection for lions is found in sculpture from Sardis dating to the Achaemenid period, but it also reflects the large numbers of lions that appear on the Persepolis Fortification seals. That prototypical Achaemenid beast, the lion-griffin, is also popular, including in scenes that involve the Achaemenid hero-king figure: Three seals show single lion-griffins, one shows a heroic combat scene with a lion-griffin, and one shows a heroic control scene with lion-griffins (Figs. 2, 4, 15, 16).22 Other composite animals featured are bearded, winged, crowned sphinxes, a goat-sphinx, and a human-headed bird (Figs. 1, 2, 5).23 A bull and a boar complete the list of animals carved in this stylistic category (Figs. 17, 18, Nos. 125, 126).24 As has been mentioned, scenes involving the Persian hero figure are present, with two heroic combats, two scenes of heroic control, and one archer scene (Figs. 2, 4, 14).25 The last remaining seal carved in “Achaemenid hegemonic” style shows the king enthroned (Fig. 3).26 These images thus overwhelmingly incorporate images favored in Iran, and many of them display exceptionally powerful and high-status central images indeed.

  • Fig. 9

    Gold seal ring with diamond-shaped gold bezel (No. 122) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 10

    Gold seal ring with a heavy hoop (No. 123). (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 11

    Gold seal ring, with carnelian scarab mounted on a swivel (No. 124) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 12

    Very heavy silver ring of horseshoe shape with an oval hematite (?) intaglio mounted on a swivel (No. 127) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 13

    Agate (?) weight-shaped seal, with corroded silver mounting (No. 121) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 14

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal, with silver mounting (No. 130) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 2

    Agate cylinder seal in a gold mounting (No. 128) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 4

    Small chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal (No. 119) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 15

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal (No. 131) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 16

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal, with corroded silver mounting (No. 132) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 1

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal with gold mounting (No. 129) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 5

    Chalcedony pyramidal stamp seal, with silver mounting (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 17

    Gold seal ring, with carnelian scarab (No. 125) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 18

    Gold seal ring, with carnelian scarab (No. 126) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 3

    Agate (?) weight-shaped seal, perforated but missing its mounting (No. 120) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

Seals and the Elite at Sardis

If, as I have argued elsewhere, the style should be seen as a newly composed and socially symbolic art of empire, it demonstrates at Sardis the network of artistic and sociopolitical connections that united the Persian and Persianizing elite. This polyethnic group at Sardis clearly had different options to choose from when they had their seals made; the preponderance of this style, carved primarily on stamp seals made of semiprecious stones, is significant. The observation takes on added significance when we consider the tremendous adherence within this style to iconography that links Sardis directly to the Achaemenid heartland and to Achaemenid imperial iconography. The seals of Sardis thus become a real citation of power, an affirmation of connections to the Achaemenid elite across the empire, expressed in a style that can be linked to the new regime and its supporters. In addition, the great beauty of the seals suggests they were meant to be seen as well as used, that this was a message to be proclaimed aloud.


  • 1For the Sardian tombs of the Achaemenid period, see Dusinberre 2003, 128–57, 239–63; for the tombs in general, see McLauchlin 1985 and Greenewalt, “Introduction”.
  • 2The general discussion presented here is largely drawn from Dusinberre 2010.
  • 3Pyramidal stamp seals: IAM 4521, 4522, 4525, No. 119, IAM 4528, 4578, 4579, 4580, 4589, 4591, 4592, 4641, 4642, 5133, 5134; weight-shaped seals: IAM 4523, No. 120, IAM 4590; cylinder seals: IAM 4532, 4581, 4643; rings with gold bezels: 4548 (bezel undecorated), 4585, No. 122, 4637; rings with stone bezels: 4519, 4520, 4632, 4633 (sealing surface of scarab undecorated), 4634, 4635, 4639; bracelet: 4518; necklace: 4640.
  • 4See also Dusinberre 2005, 19.
  • 5One of the best-known corpora of bullae from Anatolia is that found at Daskyleion, roughly contemporary with most of the seals from Sardis; see Kaptan 2002.
  • 6See Kaptan 2002.
  • 7See, e.g. the seminal study Goff 1956 and Hallo 1993.
  • 8 Marcus 1996, Collon 2001.
  • 9For settings, see Collon 1987, 108–112.
  • 10Stone identifications drawn from Curtis 1925.
  • 11The seals are illustrated in Curtis 1925, pls. IX, X, and X. For Persepolis and the variety of glyptic styles in use there on seals represented as impressions on the Persepolis Fortification tablets, see Garrison and Root 2001.
  • 12Boardman 1970.
  • 13Curtis 1925, 39.
  • 14For the seals from Sardis, see Curtis 1925 and Dusinberre 1997; bib ref="Dusinberre_2003_78337">Dusinberre 2003