Guest Posting: UD Unearths the History of the Mark

The intricately carved Persian signet ring, post c. 651 CE
Intricately carved Persian signet ring, post circa 651 CE

Greetings, all! Stella Sudekum here, student library assistant in the Special Collections department at UD’s Morris Library. I am also an Art History student at UD (’14), and had the pleasure of completing a self-tailored project within the department this past spring semester.

The J. Ben Lieberman collection of seals, stamps, and marks came to Special Collections during the summer of 2013. After the staff accessioned the collection, I began formulating a project plan to shed some light on its content. It would include three phases: Rehousing, Research, and Exhibition. My Art History specialty in ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals gave me an inkling that some of the artifacts in this collection were of a considerable age.  However, as research began, it became clear that a few were modern reproductions of historic designs. Nevertheless, it was exciting to discover supporting evidence that certain objects are not only authentic, but are also thousands of years old! As my initial research has concluded, the collection houses some of the oldest pieces within Special Collections.

Displaying the ancient cuneiform alphabet of Akkadian, c. 2500-100BCE
Ancient cuneiform alphabet of  the Akkadian language, circa 2500-100 BCE

All of the objects deal with the matter of human beings trying, and adjusting, and trying again to make their mark. As time went on,  humankind developed increasing need to  mark objects and create documents. At the same time, alphabets, personal seals, decorative scriptural stamps, and ultimately, purely decorative printmaking stamps appear.  A prehistoric stamp seal begins to step away from simple geometric patterns, in favor of more original linear inscriptions and designs. An example from the collection is a personal talisman on a metal chain. The owner’s name is inscribed on the stone face of the item.  This and other objects represent linguistic advancements,  milestones of early mark-making.

A Persian name written in Arabic calligraphy, dangling from a hand-twisted ornamental chain
A Persian name written in Arabic calligraphy, dangling from a hand-twisted ornamental chain

The collection consists of sixteen small pieces spanning multiple millennia. The first task to complete was rehousing.  Creating new, ideal housing units consisted of splitting the collection into two clamshell storage boxes. Polyethylene foam was then cut to fill the interior of each box. It was then cut a second time near the top edge to create a lid. The objects were measured and moveable size templates were created to plan the most efficient housing structure within each box. Once spaced, holes were cut to each object’s size specifications in order to fully encapsulate the object within the foam block.  The lid piece was able to rest flat against the bottom foam block. To protect the objects from the rough texture of the foam, Tyvek was placed within the holes, along with an unbleached cotton strip that would run under the objects to make them easier to lift.

Final housing situation within Box 1, including unbleached cotton straps to facilitate ease and safety when removing the objects
Final housing situation within Box 1, including unbleached cotton straps to facilitate ease and safety when removing the objects

Once rehousing the collection was complete, I was able to pursue research with many faculty members at the University of Delaware. I also reached out to local institutions like Winterthur ; meeting and collaborating with these  knowledgeable specialists provided some of the most valuable information that I compiled for the diverse objects’ formal descriptions.

For example, my consultation with UD’s Mineralogical Museum curator, Sharon Fitzgerald; UD’s Associate Professor of African Art and Architecture, Ikem Okoye; and Winterthur’s head objects conservator, Bruno Poulliot, all led me to conclude that an item that appeared to be an ancient Egyptian “sphinx scarab seal” is not, in fact, authentic. This was determined when I realized the piece was composed of ceramic material rather than stone.  Also, the seal displays unique stylistic features not usually associated with this type of item. My decision was also based on research I did into hieroglyphics, as I tried to identify the half-ambiguous cartouche set on the figure’s base.

Although in-authentic, such forgeries can still teach a researcher valuable lessons about cultural styles and iconography
“Stone scarab seal.” Although inauthentic, such forgeries can still teach a researcher valuable lessons about cultural styles and iconography.

The last leg of this project will be for the staff of the Manuscripts and Archives Department to create an online finding aid shared on the Special Collections webpage.  They will work with the staff of the Library’s Center for Digital Collections to share it as an open access collection on ARTstor’s Shared Shelf Commons. This will more fully open the J. Ben Lieberman collection of seals, stamps, and marks to student researchers and scholars outside of the Delaware area community. This may also yield further or more astute information about some of the objects that were less studied this past semester.

Hoping library patrons and world scholars alike will enjoy and learn from this beautiful, historic collection!

All the best — Stella Sudekum

Stella working on the new housing structures at her desk in Special Collections
Stella working on the new housing structures at her desk in Special Collections
(Note: Senior Assistant Librarian Jaime Margalotti  of  the Manuscripts and Archives Department also assisted Stella in her work for this project.)

Curtis Small

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