Ancient Near Eastern seals can be recognized as one of the world’s earliest mass communication system. The enormous rich pictorial repertory of especially cylinder seals has a continuous development from the end of the 4th until the end of the 1st millennium B.C., making them a favored object for art historical studies. One fault in this research context, however, was to regard the seal and its image as a static artwork. Picturing artificial impressions or reconstruction drawings of the complete seal design was and is the common way to perceive their visual message. This form of modern days presentation neglects the fact that in contemporary visual practice, the seal, its image and its text were completely differently perceived.
The success of the seal as a means of mass communication built upon the fact that its message was endless repeatable, transportable and applicable to different spatial-functional contexts. This paper focusses on these contexts which essentially were embedded in the administrative, economic and legal practice of ancient Near Eastern state systems. It can be demonstrated that the seal images were employed in a way which rarely would have allowed to view their complete pictorial and epigraphic content. This leads to the question of the iconicity and indexicality of the seal images. How did the fragmented or blurred image work in shifting contexts? How did it conflate with texts and objects as the complementary means of administrative, economic and legal practice? And finally, to what extent at all was the semantics of the seal design relevant for its daily practice?
Such theoretical questions will be addressed in order to discuss the functioning of a graphic communication system in society. From this perspective, ancient Near Eastern seals may offer a case study for comparison with other research areas in the ancient world as well.