Overview of Sealing Practices at Kültepe during the Anatolian−Old Assyrian Trade Network Period

Néhémie Strupler

Author’s manuscript published in Kulakoğlu, F.; Kryszat, G. & Michel, C. (Eds.) Cultural Exchange and Current Research in Kültepe and its Surroundings Kültepe, Brepols Publishers, 2021, 181-196

[p. 181 starts]


Sealing is a well-known technique to mark ownership and identity on objects in order to protect their integrity. It is essential to administrative activities taking place beyond the face-to-face sphere of interactions.

During the Anatolian−Old Assyrian Trade Period seals were intensively used on different clay supports: on written objects such as tablets or envelopes or on clay lumps securing the opening of objects. This paper reviews sealing assemblages from Kültepe to show similarity and diversity in the production, use, and deposition of the sealings during the Anatolian−Old Assyrian Trade Period. It seeks to highlight their functions at Kültepe and to spotlight some connections with assemblages from other sites.


‘Sealing a document’ is a long-lasting practice, but as yet a field of innovative application, as demonstrated for instance in the 2010s by the eruption of the ‘blockchain’ technology, a new mechanism to ‘lock’ data. Functions and uses of seals today bear strong similarities with those dating from four thousand years ago or more. A sealing serves two main purposes: to protect the integrity of a commodity and/ or ascertain its ownership. Nowadays, (physical) seals are still used everywhere, such as on a wide variety of packaging types. Examples include plastic ring bottle caps that are detached (broken) when opened for the first time; stickers on the screw of electronic devices to prevent them from being opened and labelled with the warning ‘Warranty will be void if seal is damaged’, or similarly, as tape labelled ‘Do not accept if seal broken’ on delivered parcels. When seals are removed (broken), they may enter a new life cycle and become a (cheap) convenient tool of accounting. For example, to count how many bottles of water have been consumed in a restaurant during a week, one possibility would be to collect and count all the caps. In comparison with collecting the bottle, caps offer the advantages of being smaller, often standardized, and easy to store, allowing the bottles to be discarded or reused in the meantime.

These intertwined functions of sealing — integrity, ownership, obliteration — have been seminal in their adoption by growing institutions. The necessity of safeguarding integrity and ownership starts to be critical where administrative activities take place beyond the face-to-face sphere of interactions. Sealings are crucial for operations on a larger scale, because they enable control of several administrative procedures or transactions without the physical presence of a person or a group of people. As such, it is not surprising that seals and sealing are an important and integral part of the Anatolian–Old Assyrian trading and exchange networks during the first half of the second millennium BC. Merchants organized as ‘family-businesses’ deployed large-scale commercial activities within a trade network covering the central Anatolian region and the link between Anatolia and Aššur. The impression of seals on fresh clay to produce a sealing was a widely used identification technique during this period. It was applied on different clay supports, on written objects such as tablets and envelopes, or on clay lumps securing the opening of objects.1 Out of this practical activity emerged a remarkable craft, seal engraving, and the study of the iconography has proved to be a very rich field for investigating cultural interactions, economy, belief systems, and the organization of craft making [@OzgucN1965a; @OzgucN1968a; @OzgucN1989a; @OzgucN2001a; @OzgucN2006a; @Alexander1979a; [**p.182 starts**] @Teissier1994a; @Ozkan2010a; @Lassen2014; @Larsen2014; @Topcuoglu2014;@Ricetti2017; @Ricetti2018].

For a long time, sealing studies underestimated the importance of the functions and practices of sealing to disentangle otherwise non-recorded aspects of transactions. Shifting the interest from art objects to common practices within a comprehensive context, that is the relationships of seals and sealings with other administrative tools, makes it possible to provide another glimpse of the economic system [@Panagiotopoulos2010a]. The functional study of sealings involves the study of the impressions of seals onto them as well as the impression of objects on which the sealing has been applied, including string and other materials, the form and the material of the sealing, and all the details that can be collected on the life of the sealing, such as its creation, usage, and discarding [@Ferioli2007]. Most of the time the study of sealing is based on sealing debris, i.e. sealings that have been discarded. Therefore, it is difficult to understand a unique piece out of context and it is the comparison within and between ‘collections’ put into archaeological context that makes it possible to reliably interpret how they were used, and consequently deduce what was (the shape of) the kind of objects sealed.

As a first step toward a functional analysis of sealing practices in Anatolia during the Anatolian–Old Assyrian Trade Network Period, this paper aims at providing an overview of collections of sealings at Kültepe.


Kültepe provides one of the most important collection of seals and sealings from the Anatolian–Old Assyrian Trade Network Period.2 There is a strong contrast between the number and the spatial distribution of texts and sealings discovered at the site. Around 23,000 cuneiform tablets have been found during the excavations at Kültepe, most of them in the lower town and only forty (i.e. less than 0.2 per cent) on the citadel mound [@Michel2011b]. In contrast, as of 2005, only 430 clay sealings have been discovered, but over a quarter (c. 27 per cent, 118 sealings) were found on the citadel mound [@Michel2016a]. The proportion of clay tablets and clay sealings is also different from other sites, in which more clay sealings than texts have been discovered, for instance at Acemhöyük, where more than 1300 sealings but almost no tablets have been found [@OzgucN1989a; @Veenhof1993; @Veenhof2017a; @Kuzuolu2015a_Acemhoyuk_yazi].3

A significant part of the c. 23,000 written documents have seal impressions (especially envelopes). Among them, we distinguish more than two thousand different seals [@Ozkan2010a]. Two types of seals are commonly used: cylinder seals, typical from the Mesopotamian traditions, which have been grouped according to different styles (‘Old Assyrian’, ‘Old Babylonian’, ‘Old Syrian’, ‘Old Anatolian’) and stamp seals, considered as a marker of Anatolian traditions and purported to be more frequent during the later period of the Anatolian–Old Assyrian Trade Period, ‘Karum Level Ib’ [@OzgucN1965a; @OzgucN1989a]. Seals were made of semi-precious or hard stones, metal, ivory, bones, or faïence [@OzgucT2003a, 275]. By order of support frequency, seals have been mainly used on envelopes, clay sealings, and ceramics [@Ozkan2010a]. Clay sealings [often referred to as ‘bullae’ at Kültepe, see @Andersson2017] were shaped to fit the closed item or as an independent ‘tag’ and are found in a variety of forms such as triangular, matchbox-shaped, mushroom-shaped, round (pottery opening stopper), or hemispheric [@OzgucT2003a, 288−291]. Seals on envelopes and clay sealings may be accompanied with written cuneiform text specifically referring to the context of the sealing. In this case, items were first sealed then labelled [@OzgucT2003a, 275].

Most of the research on seals has been devoted to the iconography and prosopography to eventually identify the owner of the seals [@OzgucN1965a; @OzgucN1989a; @OzgucN2006a; @Teissier1994a; @Lassen2014; @Ricetti2019]. Recently however, more attention has been directed towards the production of seals, clay sealings, and sealing practices [@OzgucN2001a; @OzgucN2006a; @Larsen2008a; @Michel2016a; @Ricetti2017]. This trend has been initiated mostly by philologists looking at the link between texts and clay sealings found together at the same find-spot to understand archival practices. It is very fortunate that seals were not only mentioned in texts, but have also been found together with texts.4

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Evidence of Sealing Practices at Kültepe

The written documents found at Kültepe testify to an intensive use of sealings to manage the commercial activities between Aššur and Anatolia as well as within Anatolia. The seals belonging to the owners or the senders of goods (such as metal, textiles, precious objects) were used to secure containers (made out of textiles, leather bags, baskets, or reed mats) during their transportation in the merchants’ caravans [@Stratford2014a]. At the final or interim stocking destination, merchants sealed the houses, rooms, or containers to protect the merchandise awaiting further transaction, a practice that was extended when a merchant died before its succession had been managed [@Larsen1977a; @Larsen2008a; @Veenhof1993; @Michel2016a; @Andersson2017].

From the archaeological accounts of the twentieth century ad, we know that texts and clay sealings have been found together in houses in the lower town. This situation offers a very good case to investigate the ‘archival practices’ by analysing the archaeological record and the intertwined relation between texts and seals. However, even for these best recorded findings, the archaeological accounts do not allow us to reconstruct specific find-spots and the relations between artefacts and clay sealings. Until now, in the best cases, it has been possible to work out which sealings were found with which archive, but this does not allow us to reconstruct detailed sealing and archiving practices [@Larsen2008a]. For example, in the case of the Elamma archive published by Veenhof [-@Veenhof2017Elamma], the broad description provided in the archaeological report makes it impossible to reconstruct the group of tablets and sealings, even if it is clear that tablets were grouped by dossier or by gender.5 In the absence of detailed archaeological data, the study of Kültepe’s clay sealings necessarily focuses on the objects themselves. The inscription, if present, attracts most of the attention, but the general shape and the traces or marks left on the back of these pieces of clay are increasingly highlighted. These reflect somehow their use: a flat surface suggests, for example, the application to a wooden door or box; but traces of string, reeds, or textiles hint at the closing of a bundle or cloth bag.6 Based on inscriptions on some of the clay sealings, they have been classified into two categories: clay sealings for the shipment of goods, for which the inscription in Assyrian states this with the word našpertum, and clay sealings used for archival purposes [@Veenhof1993; also @Veenhof2013a, 55−58]; Michel [-@Michel2016a, 177] mentions that these functions are not necessarily exclusive. The word našpertum indicates that these sealings have been attached to tablet lots to be sent [for a discussion of the Assyrian word _našpertum_ see @Tunca2001a, 305−306; @Veenhof2017Elamma, 114; @Michel2018].

Which are the seal collections and assemblages we know from archaeological evidence at Kültepe? We are aware of multiple cases for which texts and clay sealings have been found together. Nimet Özgüç men- tions diverse archives of merchants associating texts and sealings, such as archives of Uzua, found in 1948 [-@OzgucN2001a, 148−150: six sealings]; Adad-ṣululi also found in 1948 [-@OzgucN2001a, 150−153: eleven sealings]; or Ali-ahum found in 1950 [-@OzgucN2001a, 157−164: twenty-four or twenty-five sealings].7 Additionally, Michel [-@Michel2016a] discusses in greater details four published archives with clay sealings, the archives of the families of Šumī-abiya, of Elamma, of Šalim-Aššur and of Ali-ahum8 Moreover, besides the clay sealings found in the lower town, assemblages of seal- ings have been found on the citadel mound: in the so- called ‘Palace of the west terrace’, in a house, and in the ‘Waršama palace’ [@OzgucN2001a]. The description and comparison of the assemblages from the lower town [page 184 starts] and the citadel mound give good hints at how people engaged with clay sealings in their daily life at Kültepe.

Even if the publication of the sealings from Kültepe is rich in illustrations, not all the sealings mentioned in the catalogue include a photo. Moreover, almost all the photos are close-up views of seal impressions rather than general pictures showing the shape of the sealings. This may be the best choice for investigating the icono­graphy, but it is poor for a typological classification. Therefore, only a coarse reinterpretation of the typology is possible. In order to help myself and help the readers to understand what the sealings look like, I sketched drawings of some representative sealings from the published photos. These are idealized and do not represent reality. My classification was done using the main publication of Nimet Özgüç [-@OzgucN2001a]. This is not an optimal methodology, and the classification should be regarded with caution. Due to the fact that I only used photos and drawings, it wasn’t possible to determine kinds of marks such as ropes, thread, or strings as rightly already suggested for Kültepe [@Andersson2017].9

Caption Figure 1: Schematic drawing of the hemispheric clay sealing Kt 90/k 111, with placement of seal impressions and inscription on the outer part of the sealing (left) and indication of ‘rope’ on the reverse of the sealing (right). Redrawn after the photographs in @OzgucN2001a, pl. 99. CC BY Néhémie Strupler

Caption Figure 2: Schematic drawing of the hemispheric clay sealing Kt 90/k 207, with placement of seal impressions and inscription on the outer part of the sealing (left) and indication of ‘rope’ on the reverse of the sealing (right). The similarity with the other hemispheric sealings (see Fig. 1) indicates that it was a common task. Redrawn after the photographs in @OzgucN2001a, pl. 100. CC BY Néhémie Strupler

Caption Figure 3: Schematic drawing of the hemispheric clay sealing Kt 90/k 206, with placement of seal impressions and inscription on the outer part of the sealing (left) and indication of ‘rope’ on the reverse of the sealing (right). The marks of the ‘ropes’ on the reverse of the sealing are slightly different, but the overall similarity with the other hemispheric sealings (see Figs 1−2) indicates that using this kind of sealing was a well-known and mastered task and that it was applied to a similar object: a flat surface (box?) closed with ‘ropes’. Redrawn after the photographs in @OzgucN2001a, pl. 99. CC BY Néhémie Strupler

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Sealings from the Lower Town

The Archive in the House of Šumī-abiya

The number of sealings found within the archive of this house is not clear [@Michel2016a].10 Two inscribed clay sealings are described as “našpertum” [see Figs 1−2: Kt 90/k 111 and Kt 90/k 207; @Tunca2001a; @Michel2016a]. The fact that their forms are very similar consolidates the interpretation of a similar use: a hemispheric shape with a slightly concave back, and cloth imprints with string grooves.11 Kt 90/k 206 has an almost identical shape and based on its inscription, this sealing was probably used for closing a container holding verdicts issued by the kārum of Kaneš (see Fig. 3).

These three sealings, according to their inscriptions, were used for sealing lots of tablets. They are very similar in their form, which is hemispheric, with a flat reverse and string marks. The sealing Kt 90/ 209 belongs to the same group, but only the personal names (henceforth PN) are readable in the remaining inscription. It could, however, also be a našpertum.

The two other sealings (­graphically) known from this archive are different in their form and are anepigraphic. Kt 90/ 210 was attached to a circular object, which could have been a (door) peg or the top of a bag (see Fig. 10.4). Kt 90/ 212 is only illustrated by a closeup view of its seal so it is difficult to draw any information on its shape, but it seems that the reverse was not flat, making it clearly different from the three hemispheric seals.

As a possible interpretation of the function of the sealings Kt 90/ 210 and Kt 90/ 212, I can imagine a system that is similar to Arslantepe, where some sealings were used for closing a bag with a peg and a rope (see Fig. 10.5). This could be used for (long-term) storage of goods (reserve of silver?). I am against interpreting this as a sealing used for a door peg or for closing another type of goods that would have been frequently accessed. The low number of sealings discovered indicates that the sealings we find within houses were not broken on a regular basis (as would presumably happen in the case of a door).

Caption Figure 4: Kt 90/k 210, with placement of seal impression on the outer part of the sealing (left) and indication of ‘rope’ on the reverse of the sealing (right). The marks of the ‘ropes’ on the reverse of the sealing are parallele and the general shape of the sealing is round, indicating that it was applied on a round surface such as a peg on which a rope was winded (see Fig. 5). Redrawn after the photographs in @OzgucN2001a, pl. 100. CC BY Néhémie Strupler