My ninth graders are studying the art of Ancient Sumer. I love teaching about ancient art of Mesopotamia – see my 5-Minute Art History Series: Sumerian Art of Mesopotamia video blog post and in The Art of Ancient Sumer, in The Art Curator for Kids Resource Library.
There are lots of entry points for this time period – cuneiform (one of the earliest written languages!), architecture (ziggurat temples!), astronomy (early constellation maps!), the wheel (the WHEEL!). The Sumerians invented for themselves a wide variety of things, from irrigation systems to sandals to sailboats. We know about this partly because they also created one of the first written languages – an incredible shift in history in the region and beyond.
Sumerians also created the cylinder seal by combining wheel technology with a picture story to create a uniquely artistic and useful “signature.” These could be used by merchants, builders, artisans, account keepers, and in governance. First developed sometime around 3500 BCE, the cylinders were made out of stone, glass, or clay, and featured a design carved into the side. The design might be figures, a scene of some sort, or have cuneiform markings. We have a glimpse into what was considered important to society at the time in pictographs and text. The cylinder could be rolled over wet clay to make an impression. Unlike stamps developed earlier, cylinder seals could cover a larger area.
The cylinder seals were used as signatures to mark tablets, building bricks, or other property. A hole through the middle of the cylinder made it wearable as jewelry or an amulet.
Making a cylinder seal
As I’ve said before, knowing and experiencing how artworks were made helps you have a better connection with and understanding of them. My ninth-graders made their own cylinder seals by using air-dry clay. We used Sculptit, which comes out the container in cylinders – very handy! – then tried pencils, thumb tacks, the end of brushes, basically anything we could find, to carve into it.
We let the cylinders dry, and then rolled them out on to slabs of clay.
After this we may paint them, because a lot of the relief sculptures from ancient art are painted – though the paint has faded from the examples we have – and I want students to see the difference.
Questions to ask students as part of this process:
- What can we learn by making and trying out cylinder seals?
- What are different situations – in different jobs, government functions, etc., – that Sumerians might have used cylinder seals?
- What materials do you think made for the best cylinder seals, in terms of ease in carving, ease in printing, and durability? (STEAM question!)
- How are cylinder seals an example of form and function?
- What kind of markings, pictograph, or other type of visual signature would you create to represent yourself?
- What are modern examples of symbols that we use to identify ourselves – in marks we make, jewelry we wear, screen names and avatars, etc.?
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