Unicorn stamp seal

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This steatite seal from the Indus Valley dates back to between 2600 and 1900 BCE. I got acquainted with this type of seals last year while doing my MA because I had to work on a portfolio that included a similar seal. But before I share some fun facts about them with you, let me remind you that seals had an important administrative function in antiquity. They were used to mark and to close off things (you would press them in hot wax or clay and it would imprint the design on it).

So this seal has a representation of a unicorn. At Mohenjodaro, a major Indus Valley site, 75% of the excavated seals represented animals, and the vast majority of those were unicorns. Some scholars believe that the animals represent different social statuses. That little motif next to the unicorn is very common as well, and is considered to be an offering table. Almost all the Indus Valley seals also have writing on them, but unfortunately the language is still undecipherable.

I’d like to come back to the unicorn motif for a bit. It’s the only mythical creature represented on seals from this civilization; but mythical animals are not uncommon in any sort of iconography from the majority of cultures around the world. I find them interesting because they’re usually combinations of actual animals and it always made me wonder what makes people select specific features from specific animals to create hybrids out of them. Research interests anyone?

Anyway you can see this seal at the Met in New York (stay tuned for the review). I am trying my best to also promote smaller museums; but I also give a lot of importance to the aesthetics of this blog, and this is why you often see objects from major museums. The smaller ones don’t always have an accessible online catalog with HD pictures, and a lot of research goes into every post on this blog so I’m not taking the easy solution here. For example, I know that there is an important collection of Indus Valley seals at the New Delhi National Museum so go check it out if you happen to be around there.


2 thoughts on “Unicorn stamp seal

  1. remanandhra says:

    I was told that perhaps because of the perspective in which an animal was drawn, the second horn in the background was covered by the dominating horn in the foreground, and it probably was just a bull. However, the horn is lifted up at specific angle, so it really does not seem to be just an ordinary bull or an ordinary horn. Do you have any idea what does it mean?


    • lamiasassine says:

      That’s an interesting theory actually it makes sense. The thing is I think that if we ever are able to decipher the script it would probably enlighten us a lot as to whether they’re domestic or fantastic animals.
      There is however a lot of other seals featuring known animals.


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