Signed and sealed: Memories of an empire

Anisha Birk, Sackler Scholar of Ancient Iran at the British Museum, discusses her research into ancient Persian iconograpy during a recent trip to Iraq, which was supported by an Art Fund curatorial grant.

In north-western Iraq, just shy of the Iraq-Iran border, lays the province of Sulaymaniyah. From 224 to 651 AD Sulaymaniyah was the western centre of the Sasanian Empire, the last of the great pre-Islamic Persian empires. Begun in 224 AD by King Ardashir I, the empire lasted more than 400 years and stretched across vast swathes of the Middle East.

Today, Sulaymaniyah province hosts a large and bustling city of the same name, home to Sulaymaniyah Museum, one of the largest museums in Iraq. The museum has a large collection of antiquities, which – thanks to a generous Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial grant from the Art Fund – I was able to visit to study.

The focus of the trip was to study a currently unpublished collection of Sasanian bullae. Bullae are small circular lumps of clay, which were impressed with seals and belonged to official or private individuals of the Sasanian Empire. The bullae were an important part of Sasanian life and it was incredible to see the markings of individuals going about their everyday business across an ancient empire.

Sulaymaniyah Museum houses an impressive (and perhaps unparalleled) collection of around 1,400 Sasanian bullae. I was lucky enough to examine many bullae from the collection, recording details about their iconography, shape and size. I was joined by a team of colleagues from Sulaymaniyah Museum, who offered great insight as well as much-needed practical help with the recording.

Power and commerce

A major part of my previous research in the UK had been looking closely at the iconography on Sasanian seals and bullae. I was struck by the variation of iconography on the bullae​ in the Sulaymaniyah Museum. There were unusual impressions, such as a wolf's or bear's head surrounded by circles. This impression appeared several times on the bullae, suggesting its repeated use in this region of the empire.

There were also a number of large, impressive bullae with a central impression showing an armoured rider on a horse carrying a spear – often referred to as spāhbed seal impressions, they most probably belonged to a high-ranking official of the army.

Some seals were more personal, with smaller portrait busts and inscriptions or a chosen emblem such as an animal or flower. The range of images illustrates that bullae would have been handled across different levels of society, perhaps to seal an important official deed, or by an ordinary citizen to sign a food parcel. Whatever the purpose, every impression reveals an assertion of identity, the beliefs and tastes of individuals within the empire.

Visiting Paikuli

Examining this enormous collection was invaluable, but having the rare opportunity to visit archaeological sites dating to the Sasanian Empire was particularly special.

Accompanied by colleagues from Sulaymaniyah Museum we visited Paikuli, where during the 3rd century the Sasanians erected a large tower monument to victory in a striking rugged landscape. Many of the stones, now housed in the Sulaymaniyah Museum, bore fragments of an important inscription telling the story of how Narseh marched in revolt against King Varahran III in 293 AD.

Seeing where the monument had stood helped me to understand the geographical significance of its positioning. Perhaps at the centre of a crossroads, the monument signalled triumph to all travellers.

Future research

With such widespread use, seal impressions on the bullae, or the seals themselves, offer a rich resource for charting the development of artistic style, power relations, trade and religion. Back in the UK I have been conducting the second stage of my project, which includes examining important Sasanian seal collections at Bolton Museum, the Ashmolean collection, and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Alongside the Sulaymaniyah Museum and British Museum holdings, I have recorded information on these other UK collections. This has allowed me to create a large body of data through which to compare the seal iconography, such as regularity of certain motifs, stone type and size.

I am looking forward to exploring these collections further through analysis of the data collected, and to sharing this with all the museums involved in the project.

Anisha Birk's project was supported by a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. Read more blogs from Art Fund-supported curators.

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