Archaic City Seals and Geographic Names


Fig. 1: City Seal

Fig. 2: Geographic Names









What Are the Archaic Sumerian City Seals?

In early times, the Sumerians used seals which consisted of special devices which represented this or that ancient city. While the actual seals themselves have not been recovered, Archaeologists have found items such as tablets or jar lids which bear the impression of these objects: as a consequence, the study is of seal-impressions. In the following, we attempt to present reading into the form of the seals, their use and political significance. It is important to note there are only two findspots in which seal impressions have been found, the first of which is Early Dynastic Ur:

The Seal impressions from Early Dynastic Ur:

*refer to fig.1 at the top of the page for visual*

The seal impresssions from Ur are from the Early Dynastic period, and were found in an ancient rubbish heap during the archaeological excavation of the Royal tombs of Ur. After Leonard Woolley's excavations had uncovered the seal impressions, they were later examined by Leon Legrain who in 1936 published a book dealing with these and other seals from the site; the book can be downloaded for free at the following url: .

The seal impressions from Ur were not found stamped on tablets (which, if text was present, would have helped to explain the purpose of the seal); they were found on either jarlids or evidently on substances used to lock doors. Marc Van de Mieroop 2007 (1) comments about the possibly use these seals, he notes that they are marked frequently with the rosette symbol of Inanna and suggests: "These had been mostly used to lock doors, indicating a storeroom in Ur had been set aside to contain materials for her cult."

The Seal impressions from Uruk III period Jemdat Nasr and Urum:

On an archaeological dig in Jemdat Nasr 10 years after the finds at Ur, there was discovered even earlier seal impressions - these impressions are from the Uruk III period and resemble closely the City seals found in Ur; furthermore, in part because of the anitquity of this findspot, these impressions help to establish that the city devices are older then writing itself. An important understanding about these earlier impressions is that they come from the one and the same seal. So archaeologists have found numerous examples of tablets from Jemdat Nasr (and one from Urum) where the same seal has been used - this seal contains the devices of numerous cities some of which are identifiable. Despite the lack of diversity in the extent examples from this period, an advantage is that these impressions, unlike in the instances in Ur, these earlier examples are stamped on tablets which also contain cuneiform writing: this allows some additional context for interpreting their use and significance. For this we refer to P. Steinkeller beflow (see e: Political Signicance and Leagues).

Tablets bearing the Uruk Seal Impression:
Jemdat Nasr: MSVO 1, 161, 163, 166-70, 172-74, 176, 178, 180
Urum: MSVO 4, 15

Subnotes: Geographical names, Edinnu and Detail of Kesh sign

About Geographical Names (Adopted from D. Katz 2003 (2)):

*refer to fig.2 at the top of the page for visual*

The term "Geographical name" refers to a formulae or convention in the way cuneiform texts name cities. This formulae characterizes the way that the names of important religious centres were written in the earliest texts, and indeed in subsequent cuneiform literature as well. The formula of a geographical name is actually very simple, and is this: DN+UNU. This stands for divine name + UNU. Lets ask, what is the UNU sign?

The Sign UNU from ePSD

The Pennsylvannia Sumerian Dictionary entry for the sign UNU gives the following possible meanings for this sign: "banquet; dining hall; the most sacred part of a temple; seat, throne; dwelling, domicile, abode; temple". Essentially, the sign in combination with the divine name (DN+UNU) indicates the city in question by referring to the inner sanctum, the dwelling place, of that cities chief deity.

Seal Impression from Ur: UD+UNU (Larsa)

What is interesting to note is that these geographical names, for example UD+UNU (Larsa), or SHESH+UNU (Ur), seem to be direct adaptions of the Early protoliterate City Seals. This becomes clearer still when we note that the cuneiform sign UNU, a part of the geographical names, (when flipped vertical) appears to be a direct adaption from the 'base' or 'stand' in the seals. It symbolises the abode of the deity, so UD+UNU is the home of the Sun god, and the UNU is a part of his temple.

About Spoken language and Written Language

With the above information it may be advisable to quickly stress that while the Sumerians way of writing the city names evolved from the seals in the form of Geographic names, this does not reflect their spoken way of referencing the cities. As Bob Whiting once said '[don't] confuse writing and language. $E$.UNUG.KI and $E$.AB.KI are simply the way Sumerian [Ur] was written and the names of the signs have nothing to do with the way the language was spoken.' So we call Ur: Ur.. but we write SHESH.UNU.KI. (For more of Bob Whiting, refer to the below url)

About the depiction of Edinnu:

3 examples for Edinnu

Among the seals impressions from Ur ar numerous seals depicting the edinnu, the fertile plain. Given the importance of irragation and canal systems for agriculture and life in Mesopotamia, it is interesting to see those times that the edinnu is depicted in the seals - Legrain describes: 'essentially these depictions consist of a field enclosed right and left by semicircular lines divided by vertical and zigzag lines into compartments...All free space within is filled with dentils- the gunu system of the scribes- which means solid ground.'(3) In addition some depictions of the edinnu contain wavy lines which we seem easily enough to suggest the fresh water of the canals with watered the field - it's interesting to note the same wavy lines at the bottom of the City Seal devices (at the very base of the UNU), and that the edinnu sometimes features along side the City Seals.

Comments on the Eridu and Adab seals:

While the larger portion of City Seals seem to follow the DN+UNU structure, there are exceptions. Eridu for example, is represented by what is termed "the great pole", and the Adab seal features the same but with the addition of a rising sun. Unfortunately, little can be said about the great pole and crossbars, beyond the device is called NUN.
Krystyna Szarzynska (4) says the logogram NUN when in cuneiform can mean "prince," "princely," "lofty." In the archaic period it could be used as a substitute name of a local deity, as a title of a dignatary, or as a designation of an institution connected with them. NUN could also indicate the name of the city Eridu(g), although written without the second designation KI, as in later times. That same author adds about signs NUN and URI3: "Both of these signs probably belong to the group of cult symbols representing local deities or protective forces."

Although it doesn't seem possible to get exhaustive details on NUN, with more information some loose context may be inferred. Szarzynska discusses Archaic Sumerian Standards, which were objects carried by cultic personal in processions or else objects which might adorn either side of an entrance to a divine abode; such as for example the ring posts of Inanna. She points to one standard (SEE *A* above) which consists of two NUN poles, and she supposes these may have adorned either side of a gateway at a temple. Additionally to relate NUN to the temple, we may take the Sumerian words E.NUN (*B* above) which means "innermost room" and also EN.NUN (*C* above) a type of priest likely involved with this same room, to indicate that NUN in the seal of Eridu and Adab had a function quite similar of the UNU of the other city seals: to indicate a city by way of symbolizing the inner sanctum of the local chief deity. In short, UNU and NUN would seem to be functional synonyms of a sort.

Detail of the Kesh seal:

We should recall that Kesh was an archaic city which remains undiscovered; it is known however from the Kesh Temple hymn, and we know it to be the city of Ninhursaga (sometimes, a birth goddess.) Piotr Steinkeller [5] submited an interesting discussion on the seals which we review further below, but for now, note 27 from that same paper is interesting for its detailed comments on the Kesh Seal:

First, Steinkeller discusses the Kesh city seal from Jemdat Nasr and Urum in the Uruk period:

"27. This toponym was interpreted by M. Lambert, RA 64 (1970): 189, as either Umma or Akshak. Identification with Kesh was suggested by Green, ASJ 8 (1986); 77. Matthews, MSVO 2, 34-35, analyzes the grapheme in question as "two signs, perhaps the jar with lid." The "jar" is more likely a "womb," related formally to the "omega" symbol of Ninhursag = uterus with ovaries, for which see J. Black and A. Green, Gods, demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia (Austin, 1992), 146-47. The second sign is probably ŠU2 (= ZATU-534). This writing is conceivably a precusor of KEŠ3, which unquestionably appears on several Ur sealings.."

Next, the Kesh city seal found at Early Dynastic Ur is discussed:

In this form, the seal appear to be termed "KEŠ3"

(it appears on the Ur seals..) "either in its complete form EN2(=ŠU2+AN)).ŠAG4 .. or defectively as AN.ŠAG4.. A possible meaning of the latter logogram is en2 "incantation" (Akk. šiptu) + ŠAG4 "womb" i.e. "the one of womb/birth incantations," referring to Ninmah/Ninhursag, the goddess of Kesh..." In sum, Steinkeller says that the Kesh seal from the Uruk III period is likely the precursor to that we see in Ur in the ED period, and that, in the later occurrence of the seal especially, a reading of EN2 + ŠAG4 is possible - how is it he says that this should be read with EN2? If we remember what the word
en2-e-nu-ru looks like this:

This first part of this is EN2 - the wedge and the AN sign (like a star). Now if you turn this vertically, doesn't it look just like the top part of the Kesh city seal from Ur? Therefore, some experts, after identifying the below parts as ŠAG4, are able to say incantation-womb, and associate Ninhursaga who is said to know the birth incantations, and whose city was Kesh.

Political significance and leagues

In this article Piotr Steinkeller looks again to the question of the Archaic City Seals. His article appears in the volume "Riches Hidden in Secret Places" and is a tribute to Thorkild Jacobsen and at the same time a re-examination of one of Jacobsen's key observations. Jacobsen had proposed the existence of what he termed the "kengir league" this is a group of cities held under the political sway of Nippur. This centering on the authority of Nippur is a byproduct of the actions and powers of some of the last Kings of Kish - for some insight here please refer to out notes on the kings of kish . As P. Steinkeller discusses, some of the evidence Jacobsen used to formulate his idea of the Kengir league was the seals for Ur.

History of Interpretation

Steinkeller begins:

&;quot;As is so often the case in matters early Mesopotamian, it is to Jacobsen that we owe the first cogent argument for the existence, in the late prehistoric through the Early dynastic periods, of a supra city-state institution that united all Sumer into a single political and religious body. According to Jacobsen, this hypothetical institution - dubbed by him the "Kengir League" - was centered around the city of Nippur, which served as the league's meeting place, as well as the religious capital of all Sumer."

Part of the evidence adduced by Jacobsen in support of his proposal was a group of "puzzling jar sealings" from archaic Ur, which bear multiple depictions of city names. [note: the city seals from Legrain 1933.] As Jacobsen reasoned, "since such collective sealings imply collective responsibility for the goods sent under the seal we may see in them evidence of official deliveries to Ur by groups of cities, a feature most easily understandable in terms of a league of cities such as the Kengir League. An obvious parallel is the bala deliveries of later times."

The author adds that ten years after Jacobsen had made these claims another "collective city seal" was found in Jemdat Nasr. In addition a tablet bearing the same seal has been found from outside Jemdat Nasr. By "collective city seal" it is meant one seal that depicts the names of numerous cities - this collective seal appears on numerous tablets dating to the Uruk III period. Scholars it seems, have largely continued with Jacobsen's original proposals about the Ur seals, and see them as evidence of a cooperative institutionalized grouping for the most part.
However, Steinkeller relates that there have been several objections to this interpretation of the Ur City Seals, Michalowski for example, feels that it is unnecessary to read political meanings from them, because they may just be interpreted on grounds of economic function alone: they may just have served to assist with the routing of goods with no other implication. So, given that there may be some ambiguity in interpretation despite Jacobsen's long standing idea's, Steinkeller desires to reach a better understanding.

Steinkeller's first step is to exclude Legrain's Ur City Seals from direct consideration "since they only survive on jar sealings, which is not enough to determine the nature of the administrative context in which they functions." However, he see's the early Uruk III seal differently (pictured above) because "it is impressed on inscribed tablets, whose contents might potentially elucidate the background of the respective traditions." Turning to the Uruk III seal which depicts numerous city names or "toponyms", this same seal is found on numerous tablets from Jemdat Nasr, and Steinkeller is keen to point out, that same seal is on another tablet which turns out to be from ancient Urum (not to be confused with Urim = Ur.)

The author uses his insight on toponyms, city names, to reassert that MSVO 4, 15 DOES in fact come from Urum (which had be overlooked elsewhere) and proceeds with his idea to re examine the text on that tablet and the others and to attempt to contextualize the seals also present. He notes that both the tablets from Jemdat Nasr that have the seal, and the one from Urum, both inscribe lists of the same products: figs, apples, wine (or grape/raisins), and a certain fish product. Whats more, the final column of the tablets being compared contain notations which are basically parallel. In Jemdat Nasr these read:

NI.RU Inanna/Dingir 3 Unug

In the Urum text it reads:

Ur2. ?A."RAD" MAHxNA dingir 3 PAP Unug

Steinkeller offers a new interpretation of these notations, and suggests for Inanna/dingir 3 Unug, a translation of "triple Inanna/deity of Uruk." This he says is representative of the three forms of Inanna to whom offerings were regularly made in archaic Uruk: Inanna ?úd(UD), "morning Inanna," Inanna s i g, "evening Inanna," and Inanna NUN, "princely Inanna." His interpretation as given for these lines is this then:

(Jemdat Nasr)
x commodities (issued by) the city of NI.RU (= ancient Jemdat Nasr) for the triple Inanna/deity of Uruk

x commodities (issue by) the city of Urum for the triple Inanna/deity of Uruk.

Basically, these tablets contained lists of food items which the notations in the last column tell us were meant to be offering items for Inanna in Uruk.

The function of the seal itself

the city seal

Finally, Steinkeller offers this wonderful suggestion for how the seal came to be affixed to the offering list tablets (I have made small notes in sqaure brackets to break down his comments): "How are we to explain the function of this seal, in the light of information provided by the Jemdet Nasr and [Urum] documents?
As the later sealing practice had it, sealed documents were almost invariably receipts for movables, with the recipient acting as a sealing party."

[meaning, the one who took the goods left HIS seal on the list-tablet , which acted as proof, as receipt, that the exchange took place.]

"Such receipts would be deposited among the records of the issuing party, to serve as proofs of expenditures."

[the one to make the offerings to Uruk keep the list-tablet, along with the collectors seal - like a signature - as proof of their offering]

"Such records would be deposited among the records of the issuing party, to serve as proofs of expenditures. If, as seems highly likely, the documents considered here are receipts as well, we would have to assume that the city seal identified the recipient of the foodstuffs destined as offerings for Inanna of Uruk. In other words, that person or persons acted as an official collector of such offerings. Since the seal is impressed on tablets both from [Jemdat Nasr and Urum], this necessarily means that [the seals] "owner" was based outside of either of these two cities, and that he represented therefore, some supra city-state institution.. As the facts can best be reconstructed, a representative of that institution traveled to [Jemdat Nasr] and Urum, collected the offerings for Inanna, and left behind receipts sealed with his official seal."


Steinkeller says these observations, if correct, would suggest an arrangement or "organization" in which different cities (perhaps some or all of the the ones represent in the seal itself) are obligated to prepare offerings for Uruk, to be collected and confirmed by the receipt list-tablet and sealing. This places Uruk as the focus and beneficiary of the system, which given Uruk's prominence in the Uruk III period is "precisely the situation one might expect."
Because of the accompanying text on the Uruk III seal examples, Steinkeller is able to assert such an intra-city arrangement although if we remember that Jacobsen's Kengir-league is somewhat reliant on the Ur city-seals, it may be of some concern that these lack any accompanying text (being jar-lid seals mostly.) However, Steinkeller is ultimately supportive and concludes:

"With all due caution, it may be suggested that the"organization" thus reconstructed was an antecedent of the later "Kengir League." Although that amphictyonic organization remains a largely hypothetical construct, it would seem likely that, as indicated by the Ur III data pertaining to the so-called bala institution, its focus was the city of Nippur and its chief deity Enlil. This leads us to the unavoidable conclusion that, sometime in the beginning of the Early Dynastic period, the original Urukian organization underwent a dramatic transformation, by which its focal point was transferred from Uruk to Nippur. Such a development appears to be entirely plausible, for there exists independent evidence of the rise, roughly at that time, of Enlil to the position of the head of the Sumerian pantheon, which was concomitant with the decline of the importance of the cults of Enki and Inanna. Undoubtedly, this religious transformation reflected political changes which had taken place either at the end of the Uruk period or at the very beginning of the Early Dynastic times: the ascendance of the city of Kish and its region to power, as a result of which the center of gravity of Babylonian politics had moved from the area of Uruk and Eridu to the region of Nippur This brings us, finally, to the issue of the city sealings from Ur, which provided some of the inspiration for Jacobsen's "Kengir League." In light of what we now know about the Uruk III seal, it will not be unreasonable to assume that these sealings attest to a similar arr`angement of amphictyonic nature. But around which particular city and cult did this arrangement center? The fact that the sealings seem to date to the ED I period should probably favor the choice of Nippur, since it is likely that, already then, Nippur enjoyed the status of religious capital of Babylonia. But without any corroborating evidence, this whole question must remain open for now."

Further Questions:

A question we have left unexplored pending further reading, is another view of the AB/UNU sign itself. While it may be called in general terms the 'base' or 'stand' in the city seal, on a closer examination this symbol and its corresponding cuneiform sign are shown to mean "abode" and to refer to the inner sanctum of the temple of the city god. When addressing the origin of UNU, its interesting to ask - Was this sign originally the sign of UNUG (Uruk) specifically? We know that Uruk was early envolved with intra-city exchanges as the Jemdat Nasr seal impressions demonstrate, and further Uruk was the city that early on, was demonstratably formitive and influential in terms of administration and economy. Especially if we note the writing of the Unug Geographic name was UNU+KI (just by itself) it might seem very plausible to suggest AB/UNU was in origin, the sign of Unug and perhaps specifally, the E-anna itself. This link to be updated as this question is explored.


1. 'A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 B.C." by Marc Van De Mieroop (2007)
2. The Image of the Netherworld in Sumerian Sources, Diana Katz, p. 404 i (2003)
3. "Archaic seal-impressions from Ur, Leon Legrain 1936 pg. 45 (note: 214).
4. Archaic Sumerian Standards, by Krystyna Szarzynska Journal of Cuneiform Studies (1996)
5. Archaic City Seals and the Question of Early Babylonian Unity

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