Engraved Gems from the Ancient Persian Empire

Personal seals carved from semiprecious stones and engraved with exquisite miniature scenes were used widely within the ancient Persian Empire.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Map of the Achaemenid Empire (2022) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550–330 BC), officials and aristocrats owned engraved gems that they impressed into clay as signatures to seal documents. These minute carvings were the work of extraordinarily skilled craftsmen.

The gems —carved mostly from chalcedony, jasper, and agate— were often originally set in gold or silver mounts, which allowed them to be worn or carried as a form of jewelry.

Scaraboid with a Persian King Fighting a Greek Hoplite (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Scaraboid (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Double-Sided Pendant Seal with a Persian Hunting and Herakles (side B), Unknown, -0400, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Octagonal Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Main View, front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Seal with a Seated Hyena, Unknown, 400 BC, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Achaemenid Empire Map Close-up (2022) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Various types of seals were used throughout the empire. Seals from the western region of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), where Greeks and local peoples lived under Persian rule, were made in a hybrid style that often blended Persian and Greek elements.

Achaemenid Empire Map (City of Sardis) (2022) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The city of Sardis in the region of Lydia was the likely location of workshops that produced many of these seals.

Cylinder Seal with the Persian King Grasping Two Lions (all views) (-0500) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Cylinder seals, a shape that was common in Mesopotamia and Iran, were occasionally made in Asia Minor. This example, made in a Lydian workshop, is carved from blue chalcedony. 

Cylinder Seal with the Persian King Grasping Two Lions (top view) (-0500) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

It shows a popular motif of the Great King (a title by which the Achaemenid kings were known) standing beneath a winged solar disk as he grasps two lions. The solar disk likely represents Ahura Mazda, the patron deity of the Achaemenid kings. 

Cylinder Seal with the Persian King Grasping Two Lions (impression matched to art) (about 500 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

By rolling the cylinder against wet clay, the seal’s owner could impress the full carved scene, as shown in this modern impression made by conservators. 

The same motif of a powerful king grasping two animals by the neck appears on this blue chalcedony seal.

Conoid stamp seal (Impression 3/91), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Conoid stamp seal (Old photography), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Conoid stamp seal (Old photography)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Cone-shaped seals like this one were typical of Babylonia, a region in present-day Iraq that was also part of the Achaemenid Empire. Here, the king holds two lion griffins (winged lions with horns).

The king’s bravery is also on display in battle scenes. This remarkable seal is a type called ‘scaraboid’ (scarab-shaped, referring to ancient Egyptian amulets made in the form of scarab beetles). It is carved from banded agate and depicts the Great King driving a spear into a collapsing Greek soldier.

Scaraboid with a Persian King Fighting a Greek Hoplite (Impression), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Scaraboid with a Persian King Fighting a Greek Hoplite (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Scaraboid with a Persian King Fighting a Greek Hoplite (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Greek is nude except for his crested helmet, and he carries a round shield and spear. . .

The crown and long robe of the Persian king are attentively detailed. 

Seals of a distinctive pyramidal shape were made in the city of Sardis around 500 BC. On this example in white chalcedony, a lion attacks a bull. The precise meaning of this dynamic composition is unknown, but it may have symbolized the power of the Achaemenid king to marshal the wild forces of nature.

Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Front impression), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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This scene also appears on monumental stone reliefs found at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, in Iran.

Staircase Relief of a Lion Battling a Bull (1935)Oriental Institute Museum

Octagonal Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Profile)The J. Paul Getty Museum

When viewed in profile, one can appreciate the depth and shape of this octagonal pyramidal stamp seal, made of blue chalcedony. 

The seal is engraved with a scene of two lions who rear up and turn their heads away from one another. A floral design stands between their feet.

Octagonal Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Main View, front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Octagonal Pyramidal Stamp Seal (Impression (old photography)), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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A striped hyena sits in profile on this blue chalcedony scaraboid seal. Careful studies of animals, such as this, were popular on Persian seals of the fifth and early fourth centuries BC.

Seal with a Seated Hyena (impression), Unknown, -0400, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Seal with a Seated Hyena, Unknown, 400 BC, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Hunting was a prestigious activity for the Persian aristocracy, and Achaemenid seals of the fifth and fourth centuries BC frequently depict men in typical Persian dress (sleeved tunic over trousers and soft cap) on horseback or on foot pursuing their prey: lions, boar, stags, wild goats, foxes, and hyenas.

On this blue chalcedony scaraboid, a hunter shoots an arrow at a running stag.

Seal with a Persian Hunting a Stag (impression), Unknown, -0400/-0350, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Seal with a Persian Hunting a Stag, Unknown, -0400/-0350, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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A small number of Achaemenid seals take the form of tear-shaped chalcedony pendants engraved on multiple sides. All appear to be products of a single workshop located in western Asia Minor.

On one side of this pendant, a hunter on horseback shoots arrows at a running hyena.

Double-Sided Pendant Seal with a Persian Hunting and Herakles (side A impression), Unknown, -0400, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Double-Sided Pendant Seal with a Persian Hunting and Herakles (side A), Unknown, -0400, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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On the other side, the Greek hero Herakles stands with club raised and a lion’s skin draped over his arm. Greek deities and mythical figures were only rarely depicted on Achaemenid gems, and the significance is uncertain.

Double-Sided Pendant Seal with a Persian Hunting and Herakles (side B impression), Unknown, -0400, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Double-Sided Pendant Seal with a Persian Hunting and Herakles (side B), Unknown, -0400, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Engraved Tabloid Gem (Main View, front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Called a ‘tabloid’ gem after its shape, this example is engraved on its base, top, and sides. 

On the base, a horseman dressed in the characteristic Persian attire draws his bow at a rearing lion. His horse has a decorated saddle cloth and a dressed tail.

Engraved Tabloid Gem (Main View, front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Engraved Tabloid Gem (Back, impression 1/94), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Engraved Tabloid Gem (Back)The J. Paul Getty Museum

A Maltese dog appears on the top, surrounded by running animals: an antelope, a fox, a calf, and a bear.

This blue chalcedony scaraboid shows a domestic scene. . .

Scaraboid (Impression), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Scaraboid (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Scaraboid Scaraboid (about 400 B.C.) by Arndt GroupThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Persian man, wearing a sleeved tunic and trousers, rests one hand on his hip and places his other on the shoulder of a woman, who holds a flower and a wreath. 

She wears a long, loose-sleeved chiton (a type of tunic) and has styled her hair in a plait with three bobbles at the end. Representations of women in Persian art are rare, but they do occasionally appear on seals wearing this type of garment and hairstyle. 

Persian and Greek traditions often came together in Asia Minor to create engraved gems that built on earlier practices drawn from both cultures, developing a new style. Their hybrid forms reflected the multilayered cultural identity of the region’s inhabitants, who found themselves at the convergence of the worlds of Greece and Persia.

The personal seals in the Getty Museum collection are representative of the range of materials, shapes, and imagery used in Asia Minor under Achaemenid Persian rule.

Credits: Story

© 2022 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

For more resources:

Persia Exhibition Website

Persia Exhibition Catalogue

To cite this exhibition, please use: "Engraved Gems from the Ancient Persian Empire" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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