The London Telegraph has a summary of David Wengrow’s article in Current Anthropology (Wengrow, D. (2008) ‘Prehistories of commodity branding’. Current Anthropology 49.1 (with comments from Rick Wilk, Guillermo Algaze, Irene Winter, Danny Miller, Elena Rova, Mitchell Rothman, Douglas Holt, and author’s response)).
According to Wengrow the seals morphed in use from identifying a person’s property or functioning as a signature to functioning as a brand mark (the article uses the misnomer of “brand name” but since only the pictographic representations are under discussion “brand mark” is a better term) for international trade.Â From the Telegraph piece:
The first origins of branding date back to around 8000 years ago, when Mesopotamian villagers began making personalised stone seals, which they pressed into the clay caps and stoppers they used to seal food and drink. These marked commodities would have been traded directly with neighbours and travellers.
But they turned into brands when urbanisation began in Mesopotamia – a little over 5000 years ago – when traders encountered more strangers and city residents increasingly had to deal with products of uncertain origin. Not by coincidence, this was also the time when alcoholic beverages, textiles and dairy products began to be mass produced.
And that is when Mesopotamians turned symbols into logos, Dr Wengrow says in the journal Current Anthropology. In this way, the caps and stoppers came to play a key role in telling people about the quality and origins of oils, wine and other products.
When a traveller saw a familiar logo, that provided him with key reassurance about the provenance and the quality of what he was buying.
This is an interesting topic, however, I’m not sure that I would take this analogy as far as Wengrow–from the Telegraph article it appears that he makes ready links with ancient Uruk seals and Nike’s swoosh and Coke labels.Â While it is perfectly logical that one would fashion a seal for use with wine bottles that had pictures of people drinking wine, I am not convinced that these were “brand marks” in the modern sense and that people in Turkey would be able to sort out various qualities of date-wine from Uruk based on the seal.
In any case, it’s an interesting topic.Â What are your thoughts?