Cylinder seals first appeared around 3500 BC in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). They were linked to the invention of cuneiform writing on clay, and when this spread to other areas of the Middle East, the use of cylinder seals spread too and they continued to be used until about 300 BC. The surface of a small cylinder of stone or other hard material was carved with a design in reverse so that when rolled onto clay the design would appear in relief. They were an administrative tool and were rolled over cuneiform tablets and lumps of clay securing doors and containers in order to identify ownership, protect goods from theft and confirm transactions. The cylinders were pierced through from end to end so that they could be worn on a string or pin. Today the designs on cylinder seals are best studied from modern impressions or ‘rollings’ of the seals.
The tree, serpent and figures carved on this chlorite or greenstone cylinder seal suggested to George Smith, an Assyriologist working in the British Museum (1840 -1876), that the scene was related to the Old Testament story of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. For this reason it is also sometimes referred to as the ‘Temptation’ or ‘Garden of Eden’ seal.
In fact, the two figures shown seated on chairs are a god (identified as a deity by the horns on his cap), and a female worshipper. The date palm between them and the snake behind the god may be symbolic of fertility, but there is no reason to connect the scene with the story in the Book of Genesis. The subject of a worshipper in the presence of a deity was an enduring theme that was illustrated in a variety of ways on Mesopotamian cylinder seals.