Tradition, Innovation, and Ideology among the Inscribed Seals from the Persepolis Fortification Archive (20 min)


Christina Chandler, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World


The administrative documents from the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA), 509–493 B.C.E., offer a rich corpus of glyptic imagery dating to the reign of Darius I (522–486 B.C.E.). Among the approximately 4,100 distinct and legible seals impressed on the archive’s clay tablets, approximately 200 seals are inscribed, carrying both figural imagery and text in their designs. Inscribed seals exhibit various features that often are specific to time and place; in almost all contexts in ancient western Asia, inscribed seals are rare. Inscribed seals that are closely contextualized, such as those from the PFA, offer myriad research pathways. For example, several of these seals can be linked to high-ranking officials working in the Achaemenid administration, thus revealing important sociohistorical aspects of ancient art. The inscribed seals from the PFA exhibit many fascinating features that sometimes distinguish them from seals without inscriptions from the PFA. One such feature is the abundance of court-centric iconography—figural elements that carry linkages with the royal visual culture of Darius I. This phenomenon is particularly strong among officials working at elevated levels of the state administration. These officials used seals with diverse languages for the inscriptions and nuanced iconography for the figural scenes. Thus, the diverse empire claimed by Darius in his royal inscriptions and monumental reliefs is evident also in miniature via seals belonging to nonroyal individuals. At the same time, several inscribed seals utilize earlier artistic traditions from Elam, Assyria, and Babylonia. Collectively, the inscribed seals corpus can be linked to other Near Eastern cultures, while simultaneously exhibiting distinctive Achaemenid elements that represent a new vision specific to the imperial heartland. Glimpses of empire, whether Assyrian, Babylonian, or Achaemenid, could be seen in multiple media and throughout the vast imperial realm ca. 500 B.C.E. Scholars  have previously sought evidence of imperial ideology in Achaemenid period seals by focusing on, for example, the depiction of ethnicity in seal designs, specifically the conquering of non-Persian subjects by Persian figures. In addition to these attempts to trace depictions of ethnicity in glyptic imagery, one can highlight also the use of non-Achaemenid artistic traditions as evidence of far-reaching contact and influence among various places in the empire. As a complement to these earlier studies, this paper explores how both epigraphic and figural features of seals from Persepolis are evidence of contact with other peoples from around the empire and how such seals may carry linkages to the imperial ideology of Darius I.