Ancient documents were regularly sealed before being placed in an archive by impressing a signet ring or seal stamp into a lump of clay attached with a string to the papyrus or parchment.
In early 1906, Canadian archaeologist Charles T. Currelly, the later founder of the Royal Ontario Museum, purchased some 400 clay sealings from a local dealer in Egypt, who maintained that they were found in a large jar in Edfu. Probably around the same time, German Egyptologist Friedrich W. von Bissing acquired a similar number of sealings from this dealer.
Most of the latter set found its way to the Allard Pierson in 1934, where they remained mostly unnoticed. Why would anyone be interested in these rather unsightly small lumps of clay? What can they tell us about Egypt in the Hellenistic period? And why this sudden interest in Hellenistic sealings?
The Edfu Connection
The site of Edfu, south of Luxor and Karnak, was sacred to the falcon god Horus. Its temple, one of the best preserved sanctuaries of ancient Egypt, was built between 237 and 57 BC. The hoard of originally about 800 sealings may have been deposited after a conflagration burnt the documents to which they were attached.
They form the largest set of preserved clay seal impressions from Hellenistic Egypt. And yet, both halves have thus far not been studied and compared systematically. The Toronto half was published in two preliminary articles over a century ago; some of the Amsterdam examples have been published sporadically since the mid-1990s.
Over half of the sealings depict male or female heads or busts, the majority of which represent royal portraits from the second half of the Hellenistic period (that is, ca. 185-25 BC). This fact alone makes the Edfu sealings very important, as there are few securely identifiable portraits of the kings or queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty of the time.
Recent research has now established that all kings from Ptolemy VI through Ptolemy XII, and several of the queens from Cleopatra I through Cleopatra VII, can be recognized among the hoard. Additionally, seal impressions can be attributed to Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I and even Julius Caesar. This research project, The Edfu Connection, was made possible through generous support of the Mondriaan Fund and the Getty Research Institute.
About 50 sealings are impressed with hieroglyphic texts that reveal priestly titles associated with sanctuaries of southern Egypt. These titles further illustrate the connections between the Edfu temple and priests of Isis at Philae and of Chnoum at Elephantine near the first cataracts of the Nile.
Representations of gods and goddesses – without priestly titles – may likewise point at temple associations and thus connections between the Edfu temple and other sanctuaries, but that cannot be proven beyond doubt. If other Egyptian hoards of sealings would eventually be published – such as those from Elephantine (now in Berlin) or Tebtynis (now in Milan) – more in depth analyses could unveil other connections between the various regional and local priests.
A glimpse into the past
Despite their small size and dull appearance, the iconography of seal impressions can tell us a great deal about Hellenistic Egypt. The presence of royal portraits in a temple archive does not necessarily demonstrate direct correspondence between the royal court in Alexandria.
The preponderance of these portraits does illustrate the widespread popularity of its imagery – and thus the dissemination of royal ideology. Temples were also centers of production, maintaining contact with merchants, officials and workers in and around temple lands. It is also likely that the temple archive was used by locals for safekeeping (copies of) contracts, loans, receipts and other important documents.
Apart from the royal portraits, deities from Greek and Egyptian religion appear on the sealings, as well as gods that emerged from the encounter of both cultures. Examples include Apollo and Athena, Demeter and Dionysus, Isis and Osiris, Sarapis and Ammon.
Among other things, the Edfu hoard thus shows the interaction or entanglement, adoption or adaption of different cultures and religions in Upper Egypt. Isis appears, riding aside a dog’s back, flanked by stars: an image that can only be understood as a Hellenistic interpretation of an Egyptian assimilation between Isis and Sothis. For Sothis was the goddess who embodied Sirius, the brightest star in Canis Major, which was in turn associated with the annual Nile flood.
Aside from gods and goddesses, king and queens, the images on the seal impressions also depict plants and animals, as well as inanimate objects. The series include griffons and other mythological beings, birds such as the eagle (the emblem of the Ptolemaic dynasty), the falcon (of Horus) and the ibis (of Thoth), bees and bunches of grapes, thunderbolts (another Ptolemaic symbol), and military attributes, among other things.
These images are further testimony of the spread of Hellenistic themes as well as the (re-)appropriation of ancient Pharaonic iconography. They also add information about the nature of the documents held in the Edfu archive, as some themes clearly reflect royal ideology, while others hint more at personal, private preferences.
The SigNet Consortium
It has been over 25 years since the first international symposium on ancient sealings and archives. As a result of The Edfu Connection, a second conference focusing on the Hellenistic period was recently organized at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. That meeting of experts signals a renewed interest in the field among a younger generation of scholars.
Great numbers of Hellenistic sealings, signet rings and like material continue to be found in archaeological excavations across the Mediterranean and into the Near East. There are presently known to be about 200,000 sealings preserved from the Hellenistic world. It has therefore become vital to automate and digitize as many specimens as possible to facilitate the study and accessibility of the material.
For this purpose, scholars from America, France, Italy, and The Netherlands have joined forces in the SigNet Consortium, a network of experts in Hellenistic sealings and archives. Our hope is to bring other colleagues into the consortium from Germany, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, and elsewhere whenever possible.
Our aim is to create an online platform bringing together the various collections, allowing for cross-referencing through image matching, making research readily available, engaging citizen participation and encouraging community outreach. Eventually the SigNet platform could grow to include sealings from other periods and regions, as well as related miniature artefacts, such as signet rings, seal stamps, engraved gems, coins, and so forth.
In sum, the clay seal impressions from Ptolemaic Edfu – like comparable material from other sites and times – form an invaluable source of information to ancient historians. The offer insight into the political administration of the kingdom and the priestly connections in the region. They show the personal preferences for certain imagery, elucidate the entanglement of different cultures, and thus allow us an unprecedented glimpse in the past that historical literature fails to provide.
Note: the featured image used at the top of this article is a photograph of the Horus Temple at Edfu by Henri Béchard, ca. 1870s. (J. Paul Getty Museum collection, GRI acc.no. 2008 R3.3402.)