Sunday, January 28, 2018


Ronald Wallenfels, Hellenistic Seal Impressions in the Yale Babylonian Collection: Ring-bullae and other Clay Sealings. Catalogue of the Babylonian collections at Yale, 5.. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 287. ISBN 9781934309681. $70.00.

Reviewed by Jennifer R. Hicks, UCL (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

By the Hellenistic era, only a few individuals in Mesopotamia continued to write on clay tablets in the millennia-old cuneiform script, while most people wrote on leather or papyrus in Aramaic or Greek. The majority of these leather and papyrus documents are irretrievably lost. However, some such documents were secured by forming a piece of clay over a string which bound the document and then impressing one or more seals. These pieces of clay, termed "bullae" or "sealings", survive in the thousands.

Almost three decades ago, Wallenfels published a catalogue of the seal impressions which occur on Hellenistic cuneiform tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection.1 In Hellenistic Seal Impressions in the Yale Babylonian Collection: Ring Bullae and Other Clay Sealings he completes this project, publishing those seal impressions which occur on the 72 Hellenistic (napkin-)ring bullae and 13 flat bullae ("cretulae") also held by the Yale Babylonian Collection. Although they lack a secure archaeological findspot, Wallenfels demonstrates that many of the bullae, like the cuneiform tablets, are from the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk. The fact that some seals are also known from labelled impressions on cuneiform tablets enables Wallenfels to suggest owners for some seals and dates for several bullae. Most of these bullae were previously unpublished,2 so this work advances our understanding of seals and sealing protocols in Hellenistic Uruk. Wallenfels has moreover collated previously published bullae, enabling him to note, for example, that the legend of the salt tax stamp impressed on MLC 2633 (No. 1-1) should probably be read as 70 Seleucid Era, as originally suggested by Clay, rather than as 90 Seleucid Era, as Rostovtzeff later proposed (32).3

In the 'Introduction', Wallenfels gives an account of sealing practices in the ancient Near East and a summary of other collections of Seleucid tablets and bullae, as well as providing an overview of the bullae in the Yale Babylonian Collection, focused on the history of the collection and the iconography and material of the impressed seals.

The majority of the volume then consists of a very detailed publication of the bullae and their seal impressions. Wallenfels summarises the size and publication history of each bulla and provides a drawing showing the locations of impressions, while each seal impression receives a twice-life-size photograph, a description of the seal's size, shape and motif, and, if relevant, a summary of other known impressions. Wallenfels' discussions of motifs are in general brief and the reader is referred to studies elsewhere,4 although further commentary is given on a few unusual specimens, such as a Persian royal hero seal (No. 10-7).

As well as noting the locations of seal impressions, Wallenfels records unsealed areas and other markings on each bulla, such as incised lines or finger nail impressions. This unusually careful consideration of the bullae as objects allows him to reach a nuanced understanding of the roles of seal bearers. For instance, his observation that a duplicate impression of a seal is usually located adjacent to the first impression leads him to suggest that the two impressions of a seal on YBC 7648 (No. 9), which are not located in this manner, were probably made by two individuals. The fact that seal impressions are typically published without such attention to the bullae on which they occur means that Wallenfels is not always able to draw relevant comparisons with bullae from other collections. For instance, a number of small napkin-ring bullae from the Turin excavations of the Archive Building at Seleucia-Tigris bear just two impressions of the same seal, located on opposite sides of the ring, in the same manner as the impressions on YBC 3088 (No. 11).5 Wallenfels moreover includes photographs of illegible impressions, giving the reader a sense of the difficulties in interpreting these often-fragmentary objects.

Wallenfels' focus on the bullae as objects does mean that the reader must carefully study his commentary and pictorial index to identify when a seal is known from impressions on several objects, as for instance with No. 3-10, which is also Nos. 36-3 and 36-4, and additionally occurs on a bulla now in the Louvre. Nonetheless, Wallenfels' detailed knowledge of Hellenistic seal impressions means that such instances are noted. His decision to order the catalogue according to the features of the impressed seals (such as whether a tax stamp is impressed, or whether a seal is impressed twice on the bulla) also means that seals with similar iconography are not grouped together; however, indices of main and secondary motifs and a pictorial typological index enable the interested reader to identify all occurrences of, for instance, apkallu-seals.

In conclusion, this extremely thorough work, with its high-quality photographs of several hundred seal impressions, increases our understanding of seal motifs in Hellenistic Mesopotamia, and offers a model for how considering bullae as objects can enable sealing protocols to be better reconstructed.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, p. 1
2. Catalogue of Objects, p. 27
3. Catalogue of Seal Impressions, p. 31
4. Indices, p. 243
5. Concordance of Museum Numbers, p. 269
6. Concordance of Private Seal Impressions, p. 271


1.   Wallenfels, R. 1994. Uruk. Hellenistic Seal Impressions in the Yale Babylonian Collection. Volume I. Cuneiform Tablets, Mainz am Rhein.
2.   A few have previously been published, for instance: Clay, A. T. 1923. Babylonian records in the library of J. Pierpont Morgan. Part IV, New Haven, and Wallenfels, R. 2000. 'Sealing practices on legal documents from Hellenistic Babylonia', in M. Perna (ed.), Administrative Documents in the Aegean and their Near Eastern Counterparts, Torino, 333–351.
3.   Clay, A. T. 1923. Babylonian records in the library of J. Pierpont Morgan. Part IV, New Haven, pl. 50; Rostovtzeff, M. I. 1932. Seleucid Babylonia: Bullae and Seals of Clay with Greek Inscriptions, New Haven, 43.
4.   Such as Wallenfels, R. 1993. 'Apkallu-Sealings from Hellenistic Uruk', Baghdader Mitteilungen 24, 309–324.
5.   For instance, bullae S-6688 and S7-1899, impressed by seals M 152 and Nk 15 respectively (for which, see Bollati, A., and Messina, V. 2004. Seleucia al Tigri. Le impronte di sigillo dagli Archivi. Figure umane, animali, vegetali, oggetti, Alessandria; and Bollati, A., and Messina, V. 2004. Seleucia al Tigri. Le impronte di sigillo dagli Archivi. Divinit√†, Alessandria). My thanks to Cristina Maritano at the Museo Civico d'Arte Antica, Turin for allowing me to examine the bullae held by this museum.

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