This Fertile Land
Stamping history at the Kelsey
by Laura Bien
A collection of prehistoric tidbits, desperately scraped in 1928 from an archaeological site undergoing looting, washed up at the Kelsey Museum some sixty years later. Now on exhibit at the Kelsey, This Fertile Land offers a look into a 3000 B.C. Middle East poised mere historical seconds before the dawn of literacy.
You might think a handful of coin-size carved-stone personal seal-stamps wouldn't excite more than yawns. But it excited an eight-year-old boy among the visitors on a recent Sunday afternoon. "Can we make a stamp when we get home?" he asked his grandfather.
"I guess we could make one from a sponge," answered Grandpa.
"How do you do that?"
"You cut away part of it, so that the parts left are what you stamp with."
"Do we have an extra sponge?"
He was probably inspired by the exhibit's interactive table of Iraqi and Iranian seal-stamp motifs. Paper slips and fifteen rubber stamps accompanied by stamp pads invite visitors to invent their own personal seal-stamps using yellow ibexes, green leaves, purple chevrons, blue shamans, sulfurous scorpions, and other images taken from the exhibit's 5,000-year-old seal-stamps.
Display cases contain foot-high burgundy-velvet ziggurats displaying the tiny black carved-stone discs. Next to each one is a clay blob showing the impression each seal-stamp makes - spindly yet stately ibexes, vigorous shamans, or geometric patterns.
Placards explain that the seals were used to impress globs of clay onto the knots of tied bundles of trade goods, or onto a door meant to be kept shut. They were used to stamp palm-size clay "envelopes" containing marble-like tokens denoting numeric values of goods. The envelope's recipient would smash open this pouch to "read" the tokens.
The exhibit's most striking aspect is its revelation of the use of abstract symbols by a preliterate society. A cross within a circle denotes "sheep," and this figure with an added chevron, alluding to female genitalia, denotes "ewe." This semiabstract symbolism, connecting ancient literal pictographs to modern
abstract language, marks the birth of writing.
Almost all the seals in the exhibit were collected by archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in 1928, in an attempt to salvage a site under siege by looters. Herzfeld sold the items to a New York gallery, which advertised them in a button magazine. They were duly bought by button collector Jane Adams. After Adams's death, her husband donated the "buttons" to the Kelsey. The exhibit honors the collection's roundabout route by whimsically including contemporary buttons similar to the ancient seals, including buttons drawn from the button jars of exhibit curator Margaret Cool Root and Evelyn Gibbons ("The Button Lady") of Ann Arbor.
This Fertile Land continues through September 30.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]