CLUE TO PAST IN ANCIENT SEALS

* Cylindrical stone seals that served ancient Mesopotamians much like identity cards are giving experts a peek at daily life in 2500 BC.

``They are our only objects that are alive with people, giving us an inkling of their occupations,'' archaeologist Lamia Gailani says of the seals engraved with pictures, writing, or special signs.

Archaeologists say the seals, which have designs that include friezes of animals and plants as well as scenes drawn from daily life or mythology, are among the most prized treasures of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Dr. Gailani says the seals, used in the ancient world as signatures or title deeds, were invented in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where the earliest evidence of organized agricultural society has been unearthed.

Fifty-one seals, some made of semiprecious stone, were found at Tell Suleimeh during excavations, before it was submerged by the the Hamrin Dam in the mid-1980s.

Varying in length from one to three inches, the seals show remarkable craftsmanship, but their value extends far beyond artistic merit, experts say.

``Suleimeh seals depict for us earliest scenes of agricultural activity in those very ancient days,'' Gailani says.

Some are engraved with animals plowing fields, farmers harvesting crops, or priests engaged in ceremonies.

One shows two animals dragging a plow while a person pushes it. A second person is planting seeds, a third holds an animal, and a fourth rides one of the beasts.

It is, Gailani says, ``the earliest example of animal-riding in the land of twin rivers [Mesopotamia].''

Almost every person of consequence in the Mesopotamia of 4,000 years ago had an individual seal. Harsh penalties were meted out to forgers, and archaeologists who have looked at tens of thousands of seals say no two are identical.

Most of the seals are cylindrical and would be rolled on mud or clay jars before they were fired. The seal left an impression on the baked jars, serving as the trademark for the person who had filled the vessel with wine, wheat, barley, dates, or even minerals.

Seals also were used to make impressions on bricks, thus identifying the owner of a house.

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