Identification and Creation
Object Number
Stamp Seal: Hand
Work Type
300-600 CE
Creation Place: Middle East
Sasanian period
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
2 x 2.5 x 1.7 cm (13/16 x 1 x 11/16 in.)
string hole: 0.9 cm (3/8 in.)
Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood, Belmont, MA (by 1998-2002), gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2002.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Grayish stone stamp seal; device shows hand with a small half moon on one side and a hatched curve below; back of seal incised with a leaf-like pattern. The seal has a dent on one side, there are traces of wear around the edges of the string hole, and the surface is noticeably abraded on the edge around the image. Stone tinged yellow on back of seal.

Published Catalogue Text: In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art , written 2013
60, 61

Ellipsoid stamp seal: seated woman holding a flower
Iran or Mesopotamia, Sasanian period, 4th–5th century
Brown chalcedony
2.3 × 2.9 × 2 cm (7/8 × 1 1/8 × 13/16 in.)

Ellipsoid stamp seal with carved back: hand
Iran or Mesopotamia, Sasanian period, 4th–5th century
Opaque gray chalcedony
2 × 2.5 × 1.7 cm (13/16 × 1 × 11/16 in.)

Seals played an important role in ancient Near Eastern administrative, economic, and legal transactions. Their impressions secured goods, and cylinder seals were rolled onto the still-malleable clay of tablets with cuneiform texts to guarantee their contents. By the period of Sasanian rule (224–642), which preceded the rise of Islam, cuneiform writing had long been abandoned, and documents written on parchment or other materials were sealed with bullae, or lumps of clay impressed with stamp seals. Sasanian seals include ring bezels as well as ellipsoid and dome-shaped stamps with string holes drilled through their sides. Carved of semiprecious stones and worn as rings or neck pendants, seals could also function as jewelry and amulets. Their intaglio designs preserve a rich corpus of Sasanian imagery, ranging from human busts and figures to animals to inanimate objects and monograms.[1]

The ellipsoid stamp seal of brown chalcedony from the Calderwood Collection (cat. 60) depicts a seated woman shown in profile, holding a flower close to her nose. Broad lines of diagonal hatching indicate the folds of her long garment; two horizontal lines suggest the seat. The line running parallel to the woman’s lower back might be the end of a braid. The sides of the seal are slightly chipped and the edges of the string hole worn. Women, often with braided hair, already appear on seals from the Achaemenid Persian empire of the sixth to fourth centuries BC, where they are shown serving wine, working wool, or enjoying the scent of a flower.[2] On Sasanian seals, women are usually shown standing, holding a flower or a large ring and sometimes accompanied by one or two children.[3] They have been interpreted as representing the fertility goddess Anahita or as depicting women from well-to-do families, their rings indicating their married status.[4] Female names inscribed on Sasanian seals attest that women as well as men owned seals.[5] It should not surprise us, then, that seals could bear their image.

The opaque gray chalcedony seal (cat. 61) is also ellipsoid but has a larger string hole and a leaf pattern carved on the back. It is engraved with a hand, a small crescent moon, and a hatched ribbon. The seal shows traces of wear, including surface abrasion around the image. Like the woman with flower, the raised hand was a popular device on Sasanian seals. It was usually rendered with thumb and forefinger touching, and occasionally holding a flower, in a gesture that could represent a greeting and was probably auspicious.[6] A small crescent moon occurs frequently on Sasanian seals and coins, often with a star.

Surviving Sasanian seals exhibit a number of carving styles. There are finely engraved examples with almost naturalistic-looking figures, and many—mostly smaller—specimens whose designs are even more linear than those of the Calderwood seals.[7]

Susanne Ebbinghaus

[1] See Bivar 1969; Brunner 1978; Azarpay and Zerneke 2002; Gyselen 2006.
[2] See the contributions of Maria Brosius, Judith Lerner, and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones in J. Curtis
and St. J. Simpson 2010.
[3] For example, Horn and Steindorff 1891, 6– 7, pl. 2; Bivar 1969, 61–65, pls. 7–8; Brunner 1978, 60–63; Gignoux 1978, 35–36, nos. 4.27–30, 4.37–38, pl. 10; Harper 1978, 145–46, 148, nos. 69–70, 73; Gignoux and Gyselen 1982, 36–38, 46, 50–51, nos. 10.1–4, 10.7, 10.41, 10.44, 11.4, 11.6, pls. 3, 5–6; Gignoux and Gyselen 1987, 159–91, 222, 242–43, 285, nos. AMO 10.1–9, IBT 10.1–2, MCB 10.1–4, MFAB 1–2, pls. 4, 14, 17, 23; Gyselen 1997, xxxiv–
xxxix, 5–6, 33, nos. KPK 10.1–4, KPK 11.1, RMO 10.A.2–7, pls. 1, 8; Azarpay and Zerneke 2002, nos. 10.A.01–03; Gyselen 2007, 96–97, nos. 10.1–2, 10.5–6.
[4] There was disagreement on interpretation as early as 1891: see Horn and Steindorff 1891, 6, 32 no. 23 (1115); see also Bivar 1969, 25; Brunner 1978, 61.
[5] A number of the seals listed above carry female names; see also Gignoux and Gyselen 1989.
[6] Compare Brunner 1978, 121–22; Bivar 1969, 25, 67–69, pl. 9; Gignoux and Gyselen 1982, 44–46, nos. 10.35–40, pl. 4; Gignoux and Gyselen 1987, 163, 212, 286, nos. AMO 10.19–20, YU 1, MFAB 4, pls. 5, 13, 23; Gyselen 2006, 206, no. 153; Gyselen 2007, 96–97, nos. 10.8–9.
[7] Brunner 1978, 131–34.

Publication History

Mary McWilliams, ed., In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, exh. cat., Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2013), pp. 212-213, cat. 61, ill.

Exhibition History

In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2013 - 06/01/2013

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at