This lapis lazuli cylinder seal was discovered by the archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley during excavations at ancient Ur (modern Tell al-Muqayyar), in southern Mesopotamia (south Iraq). The most spectacular discoveries at Ur were made within a cemetery of the Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600–2300 BC), that Woolley named ‘The Royal Cemetery’. Here, among hundreds of more modest burials, were sixteen graves that he distinguished as ‘Royal Tombs’ because of their construction, abundance of grave goods and evidence of elaborate burial rituals and human sacrifice. This cylinder seal was discovered in the Royal Tomb (PG 800) constructed for an important woman named Puabi who was almost certainly a queen.
From about 3500 BC in Mesopotamia small cylinders, usually of stone, were carved with a design in reverse so when rolled onto clay the design was imprinted in relief. Cylinder seals were rolled over cuneiform tablets and clay securing doors and containers in order to identify ownership and they were pierced from end to end so that they could be worn. This seal was found near the remains of Puabi’s right arm, together with two other cylinder seals and three gold pins, which were probably used to secure her cloak. The cylinders may have been attached to the pins.
Narrative scenes on cylinder seals and other Mesopotamian objects were often arranged in horizontal bands or ‘registers’. The two registers on this seal show banquet scenes – illustrations of drinking and feasting with ritual or religious significance. Banquets were an especially popular theme engraved on the cylinder seals of the Early Dynastic period. In the top register of this seal the words Pu-abi and nin, which can be translated as ‘lady’ or ‘queen’, are inscribed in cuneiform. It is likely that Puabi is the seated woman illustrated near the inscription who has her hair arranged in a bun. She is holding up her drinking cup towards an attendant.
The lapis lazuli used to make this cylinder seal would have been obtained from Afghanistan. This reflects the extensive trade routes that existed at this time and also testifies to how wealthy Puabi was and that she believed she would need her personal possessions in the afterlife.