The Meanings of late Neolithic Stamp Seals in North Mesopotamia

  • Simon Denham

Student thesis: Phd


The late Neolithic of North Mesopotamia has long been held up as the first example of a 'global' culture with aspects of shared material culture, most notably pottery styles and subsistence strategies, spread across North Mesopotamia, the Northern Levant, and parts of south-east Anatolia. Increasing research in the past twenty years has illustrated that the material similarities visible in the late Neolithic do not represent a closed cultural community, but instead reflect a network of loosely connected groups who were members of imagined communities that linked people within shared cosmologies.Since their discovery in the early decades of the twentieth century stamp seals have been treated as a type artefact of the late Neolithic (particularly one of its constituent parts the Halaf) where they have been used to argue for the presence of sealing systems based around administrative storage of personal or communal property and possibly trade relations. However, except for a thesis published in 1990, late Neolithic stamp seals have never been comprehensively studied or interpreted primarily within their own context. Instead previous studies of stamp seals have tied stamp seals into a modernist narrative of progression that implicitly culminates in modern, Western, Nation States.This research challenges and deconstructs this narrative to demonstrate there is little evidence that seals in the late Neolithic were used for administrative purposes. To this end it gathered and re-classified the available data on provenanced stamp seals using a classificatory ontology called prototype theory that allows for more reflexive classification then the existing Aristotelian classifications. The thesis argues that stamp seals were indexical symbols with their symbolism being used to link members of imagined communities within real communities across the late Neolithic 'world'. These people were members of a perceived descent group originating in shifting relationships to place during the change from sedentary farming communities in the eighth millennium BC to more mobile communities in the seventh millennium BC. At the same time as negotiating these supra-community identities seals were also used indexically in a variety of sub-community ways being used for a variety of magical (primarily apotropaic and talismanic) uses. As part of this I argue sealing practices in the late Neolithic relate to specific events of efficacious sealing using the power in the seal's design. This research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under the Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA reference: AH/G01860X/1)
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStuart Campbell (Supervisor) & Lindy Crewe (Supervisor)


  • Archaeology
  • Semiotics
  • Identity
  • Halaf
  • Pottery Neolithic
  • Classification
  • Symbolism
  • Middle East
  • Stamp Seals
  • 6th Millennium BC
  • 7th Millennium BC
  • Middle Eastern Archaeology
  • North Mesopotamia
  • Late Neolithic
  • Prototype Theory

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