Exploring Aegean Iconography


In the Bronze Age Aegean, seals were made and used from pre-palatial times in Crete c.2600 BCE to the fall of the Mycenaean palaces in mainland Greece c.1200 BCE with a few later examples. The majority of seals are published in the standard publication of the CMS (see below) but there are some seals in private collections and some more recently discovered seals that remain unpublished or published without full detail. In round figures then, there are close to 11,000 extant seals giving approximately 12,500 seal faces with designs (since some seals have 2, 3 or 4 faces and a few have even more). Seals were meant to be worn and so have a jewellery, as well as a sphragistic or sealing, identity. Glimpses of seals being worn at the wrist are provided by the depictions of female or male figures in Aegean terracottas and frescoes, including the lentoid seal worn by a male in the Cupbearer Fresco at Knossos. In the box above you see eight of the most characteristic seal shapes, illustrated in full colour though not to scale and more detail is provided on each throughout the following text. You may also go to the IconAData Database to view additional detail on each seal.

As elsewhere in the world at different times and in different places, from the earliest seals known from 7000 BCE Syria to the Company Seals used in the corporate business world today, Aegean seals are small items shaped from some hard substance and either engraved or cut into the surface (cut intaglio) on at least one side so that, when pressed into a soft surface, an imprint of the recessed design is revealed as a tiny relief sculpture. In the ancient world the soft surface was not the red sealing wax familiar from official documents today and in the more recent past, but damp clay. The sealing traditions of Mesopotamia produced the cylinder seal where the design is cut around the surface of the cylinder and the seal rolled out to give a miniature relief frieze. The Egyptian scarabs and the Hittite seals are, by contrast, stamp seals where the design is cut on one flat face of the seal shape and this face is pressed down in the clay to give a relief design bounded by the shape of the seal face.









Hippopotamus ivory figural seal in the shape of a monkey, from Crete, showing spiral and petaloid motifs, c2200 BCE, with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS III 2).

Aegean seals are, with very few exceptions, stamp seals also, though often with curved stamping surfaces. When studying the seals, an impression is made in plasticene or silicon which take sharp detail, and then a drawing is made of the impression. A seal design is discussed from the impression and the drawing is provided to help with the recognition of the detail. Note that the impression and the drawing of it show the design as the mirror reverse of the design on the original gem.

Blue chalcedony petschaft seal from Mochlos, Crete, showing S spirals and hieroglyphic script signs, c1900 BCE,

with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS II.2 249).

Though generally referred to as “the seals” or “glyptic” the actual pieces are seals or signets or sealings.  The seals and signets are the original gems preserved to us from so long ago, the seals being the shaped pieces meant to be worn, suspended at the neck or tied at the wrist, and the signets being the signet rings made to adorn the fingers. The sealings are the ancient pieces of clay which carry the impression actually made in the palaces, villas or houses of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE and preserved because the destruction of these buildings by fire baked hard the clay with the imprint upon it.

Green jasper four-sided prism seal, from Crete, showing hieroglyphic script signs, c1900 BCE,

with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS II.2 316).

Colour photographs by permission of Ingo Pini and black and white illustrations by permission of CMS Heidelberg.

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In viewing the seals it is always important to remember the scale of the pieces. They are miniature works of art and we are very appreciative of the skill of the consummate artists who could create such scenes as these in such a small compass. The lentoid seal above has a diameter of 1.79-1.95 cm and the cushion seal below measures 2.2x1.5 cm.  

Red jasper lentoid seal with gold finials from Vaphio, Greece, showing two hunters tying up their lion catch, c1450 BCE, with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS I 224).

The seals were made from coloured stones, bone, ivory, metal and glass. The interest in colour gives us white ivory, greenish steatite and serpentine, red jasper and reddish-orange carnelian, yellowish or dark agate, pale blue chalcedony, dark blue lapis lazuli, rich blue glass, purple amethyst, shiny dark grey haematite and clear rock crystal. Many of these materials can be found locally but others like hippopotamus ivory, amethyst and lapis lazuli were imported.

Deep red and white agate cushion seal with gold mounting from Pylos, Greece, showing a female griffin standing with wings elevated, c1450 BCE, with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS I 271).

The signets were made of gold and only rarely electrum or bronze or a single piece of stone. Most signets have an oval bezel set at right angles to the hoop of the ring and the bezel carries the seal design. With the metal signets the hoop may be plain or decorated, sometimes elaborately so and the bezel designs are also recessed to produce a miniature relief on stamping but here various techniques of engraving and punching are used to produce the effect. The stone signets are, of course, cut intaglio as for the stone seals. The signets in general belong to the era of the New Palaces in Crete and the early Mycenaean period in Greece.

Shiny black haematite amygdaloid seal, from Crete, showing an elite male figure in a diagonal robe carrying an axe, c1500 BCE, with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS II.3 198).

The sealings are made of clay which, when sourced, can indicate if the sealing has been made locally or if it has been carried into its eventual find spot attached to some commodity or document. When the soft clay sealing is pressed down on the item to be sealed its lower surface takes the imprint of that item, be it a container like a basket or a folded document.

For the people who owned a seal it is likely that most had only one but some people had more than one. The women depicted in the terracottas mentioned above had a seal on each wrist and some burials have several seals associated with them but we do not know whether an individual used different seals for different recording purposes. There may be many factors influencing an individual's choice of material, shape and subject for her or his seal. The seal may have been carved to represent clan identity or position in the power hierarchy of the state. It may have been produced to signify the role of the owner in society or to declare the right of the possessor to function in the palace administration. It may have been cut to make a religious declaration or to invoke the gods. We are extremely limited in our knowledge of the influences operating on the individual at the moment of commissioning the seal material and colour, shape and design from the glyptic artist. Not all seals are of gem quality and many display very simple designs. However, it is clear from the sustained output of glyptic over the full Aegean floruit that the wearing and use of seals is very deep in the Minoan psyche and that the Mycenaeans were heir to this legacy.

The seal material has an importance above many other artefacts because it is so precious to the people themselves. The seal is their identity for sealing and valuable as a beautiful jewel to wear. Accordingly the information provided by the seals is of particular import for the researcher into the life, society, and values of the Aegean Bronze Age. For iconographic studies the seals are crucial since this is the individual's choice of subject matter, their choice to wear in life and to be buried with in death.

The CMS: Corpus der Minoischen und Mykenischen Siegel

The Corpus of Minoan and Mycenaean Seals was founded in 1958 with the aim of publishing every seal, signet and sealing from the Aegean Bronze Age and it was funded until 2011 by the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).  The first Director was Professor Friedrich Matz of Marburg University (1958-1974) who established the Research Institute in Marburg and began the detailed recording of the seals through impressions and photographs. Under the guidance of the second Director, Professor Ingo Pini (1975-2002), the Institute conducted annual expeditions to Greece to record the seals and sealings and also undertook visits to major museums where Bronze Age seals were held. The impressions of the seals, the photographs and the extensive documentation resulting from these expeditions and visits formed the basis for the publication of the CMS Volumes I to XIII including numerous Supplementary Volumes. These books remain the standard reference for Aegean Seals. The CMS Beiheft Series 1 to 9 was inaugurated to publish the CMS International Conferences as well as studies on specific aspects of the seals. A long-term project to enter the seal information in a database was also begun. Dr Walter Müller, who had been researching at the CMS for many years, became the third Director (2003-2011) and continued with the publications and the database. With funding help from the Institute of Aegean Prehistory, Philadelphia (INSTAP), he organized the installation of the CMS Database on the website ARACHNE, the object database of the Deutches Archäologisches Institut (DAI).

At the cessation of the Marburg Institute in 2011, the CMS Archive was transferred to the University of Heidelberg into the care of Professor Diamantis Panagiatopoulos and Dr Maria Anastasiadou. In its new home the CMS Archive is available to Bronze Age researchers and plans are under way to continue the collection and recording of newly excavated seals and the publication of further volumes in the CMS Series. For more on CMS Heidelberg and the CMS Seal Database go to the CMS website:


Sealing from Chania, Crete, front showing a god standing atop a tiered city with the sea lapping the cliffs below, back showing

the shape and ties of a small bundle, probably a document, that it sealed, c1500 BCE, with drawing (CMS V Sup 1A 142).

Last updated 1 March 2018

Gold signet ring from Vaphio, Greece, showing a woman gesturing and a man pulling the tree beside a shield panoply and with hovering symbols above, c1525 BCE, with impression and drawing of the impression (CMS I 219).