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Seal in the form of a Black African head, engraved with an animal combat
Naucratis, Egypt (Place Created)
early 6th century B.C.
Frit ("Egyptian Blue")
1.5 × 1.4 × 0.9 cm (5/8 × 9/16 × 3/8 in.)
The device cut into the flat bottom of this worn but intact seal depicts a feline attacking a quadruped, surrounded by a linear border. Though cursory, this is a standard composition of an animal combat, a motif popular in Egypt, the Near East, and the Aegean since the Bronze Age. On the back of the seal, the head of a Black African takes the place conventionally held by a scarab-beetle. The figure’s face is round, with eyes placed asymmetrically below a wide forehead, and vertical incisions above representing hair. The nose is flat and broad, the lips straight and full, cheeks hollow, neck fleshy, and ears large. Two holes for a suspension cord pass through the man’s temples, so the object could be worn as a pendant.
The seal was produced in Naukratis, the Greek trading colony in Egypt’s Nile Delta, and is made of Egyptian Blue, a combination of silica (quartz sand), lime (calcium carbonate), copper, and an alkali heated to ca. 800-1,000° C. Egyptian Blue is one of the oldest known artificial substances, first synthesized in Fourth Dynasty Egypt (ca. 2613-2494 B.C.) and, like closely related faience, had many uses. It could be cast in molds to create small objects, such as scarabs and seals. It was also ground to powder and employed as a pigment, which was eventually employed throughout the Mediterranean until the fall of the Roman empire. Its name in Egyptian, ḫsbḏ-ỉrjt, leaves no doubt that it was conceived to simulate expensive, imported lapis lazuli (ḫsbḏ).
While many seals were cut by hand from hard stones of various kinds, Egyptian Blue imitations like this were cast in molds. A factory for manufacturing diverse scarabs and seals, including this type and this device, was discovered at Naukratis during British excavations of the late nineteenth century. Several similar seals as well as molds for the head type are now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Other examples of Egyptian Blue scarabs from Naukratis with similar devices were exported in antiquity to Cyprus and Berezan, a Greek colony on an island in the Black Sea.
In the second millennium BC, Minoan and Mycenean Greeks came into contact with Black Africans, some apparently mercenary soldiers, in both Egypt and the Aegean. Following the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations across the Mediterranean in the twelfth century BC, Greeks would have known of Aethiopians, from the Greek term denoting “burnt-face” peoples, and their heroic African king Memnon from the epics of Homer and the works of other early Greek poets. When Greek mercenaries came to Egypt in the late seventh century BC and traders established Naukratis in the early sixth, they again encountered Black Africans, some of whom still served as mercenaries.
Mass-produced seals such as this, manufactured for export in a Greek commercial settlement in the Nile Delta, are among the earliest known, post-Bronze Age Greek depictions of Black Africans. The dark color of the material may have been considered appropriate for the subject represented, and these objects would have been rarer and more desirable the further they were traded from their point of origin. As stereotypical as these images of Black Africans may appear, they also include naturalistic details: several of the best-preserved seal backs from Naukratis depict diagonal incisions on the forehead. Intentional scarification was, and long remained, a cultural practice of some African peoples, and was also noted by later Greek and Latin authors.
Scott, David A. Copper and Bronze in Art: Corrosion, Colorants, Conservation (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2002), p. 257, figs. c and d.