Cylinder seal with "priest-king" and altar on the back of a bull


In a boat stands a “priest-king,” the highest-ranking ruler in the first cities, represented with a long beard and a netted skirt revealing the rounded forms of his lower body. He faces a bull supporting a two-tiered altar crowned with reed ring bundles with streamers, symbols of Inanna. Behind him is a wattled structure, possibly standing for a temple facade. Two attendants navigate the boat from the bow and stern, which are adorned with buds. This seal, with a silver knob in the form of a recumbent calf, was buried in the sacred precinct of Inanna in Uruk. Its imagery suggests a ritual honoring the goddess that was intended to ensure the well-being of the land, sustained by its two life veins, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

Cylinder seal (and modern impression) with “priest-king” and altar on the back of a bull
Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Uruk (modern Warka), Eanna Precinct
Late Uruk–Jemdet Nasr period, ca. 3300–2900 BC
Lapis lazuli and silver
Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Excavated 1933–34; VA 11040

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Vorderasiatisches Museum. Foto: Olaf M. Teßmer.


Sidney Babcock: A ritual is taking place in a boat and we have already met its main characters in the Uruk Vase: the goddess Inanna and the ruler. The goddess is represented here symbolically, through an altar with reed ring bundles placed on top of a bull. Facing the altar is the ruler, depicted significantly larger than the other figures. His long beard and netted skirt offer clues to his identity. The structure behind him is most likely a temple of Inanna. Two attendants navigating the boat at the bow and stern complete this rare composition. Found buried in the temple precinct of Uruk, its boat imagery suggests that this ritual honoring Inanna had to do with two life lines of the region, the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers.

This remarkable seal was carved of lapis lazuli imported from modern-day Afghanistan, and embellished with a silver knob in the form of a recumbent calf. Such knobs are among the earliest known examples of lost-wax casting, which is based on making a model in wax and covering it with clay. When heated, the clay hardens, the wax melts and runs out of the mold, and the ensuing space is filled with molten metal. Already perfected in ancient Mesopotamia, this ingenious technique was later popularized in the Greco-Roman antiquity and is still in use today.