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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

The Beginnings of Art


By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson


The earliest objects found in Iran which manifest the desire to express an idea by forms that are effective and perhaps even pleasing are clay figurines found in the excavation of a Neolithic village at Tepe Sarab near Kermanshab. Two of these, which were most carefully executed, are here reproduced. One is a female figure called here the 'Venus' of Tepe Sarab; the other is a little boar.

The female figurine is represented seated with its legs stretched out. Buttocks, thighs and legs are summarized in club-like forms which taper toward the end. Each 'leg' has an oblique grove on the side, perhaps meant to indicate the division between leg and thigh. The ends of the club -like forms are broken off, but it is unlikely that the feet were separately shaped. At most there may have been a line separating the end from the rest of the form and indicating the ankle joint. The upper part of the body, in which the arms are not indicated, is shaped like a broad cone from which the tall neck rises as a steeper and much narrower cone, ending in a short, slightly lengthened horizontal ridge with a rounded edge. The pear-shaped breasts project from the cone of the body approximately at the inception of the neck. One may note that the figurine is put together from several single parts and that the shape of the legs is not unlike that of the breasts, which gives a certain visual unity to the sculpture.

The abstraction of the rendering suggests at once that there was not intention here of showing a specific individual; instead, the stress was placed on the general female characteristics, the breasts and thighs, which are obviously meant to express ideas of fertility. Numerous fragments of figurines of this type and also much plainer ones were found at Tepe Sarab. Other such female figurines with more or less schematized forms were found in the remains of the Early Village Cultures of the Near East [about 6000-4000 B.C.] From Tepe Sarab in Iran to Çatal Hüyük and Hacilar in Turkey. [1] They must have had a specific meaning which we can understand and render only in the most general terms: there undoubtedly existed a belief in sympathetic magic according to which fertility and wealth could be increased by effective renderings in sculpture and painting of the objects associated with them. Thus art was an instrument capable of exerting influence upon nature, man and perhaps even god--though for this early period we cannot assume the existence of concepts of anthropomorphic deities similar to those later known in the cultures of the ancient Near East.

The second figurine from Tepe Sarab represents a boar which is rendered very naturalistically, in contrast to the abstract form of the Venus. The legs are rendered in the simplest way, by pressing together and bending the clay into more or less angular shapes. Yet they create the impression of an animal in rapid movement. The irregular crossing lines on the body may represent bristles, but more likely, and more in keeping with renderings elsewhere, they indicate the wounds received from the weapons of the huntsman. Whatever the significance of this detail, it seems likely that the figurine was made to assure in some way future success in the hunt of the boar. This magical, or should we rather say 'practical', meaning of art for the people who desired these objects, and for those who executed them, appears to have survived in Iran until the Sasanian period. At the same time the desire to decorate an object so as to enliven its appearance should not be disregarded. The bone handle of a flint knife found in a very early [p. 21] level of the excavations at Tepe Sialk near Kashan might be interpreted in this manner. The handle shows a man in what later was the Persian posture of greeting, bowing from the hips with arms crossed. The head may be covered by a round cap of a type still worn today, but the face is chipped off. He wears a kilt rolled up at the waist. The separation of the legs is indicated by a shallow groove in front, below which the feet are shown by a very slight projection. Below the feet was a deep grove for the flint blade, which is not preserved. Other handles made of bone from Tepe Sialk have plain animal heads. We do not know whether these handles were made for magical purposes or merely for the pleasure of decorating. In either case a convincing rendering of human and animal forms has been achieved here as at Tepe Sarab by the simplest means.

Pottery, which appeared in Iran early in the Neolithic Age, provided a cheap substitute for carefully ground stone vessels and less permanent wood and skin containers. It satisfied the need for a variety of such containers in shapes ranging from drinking-cups to cooking pots and storage jars. Many of the vessels excavated in prehistoric sites are therefore utilitarian in nature with thick walls and little or no decoration.

From the beginning, however, the Iranian potter produced some decorated wares. Soon a whole range of fine pottery developed with local styles of decoration based on the ingenuity of the potter, who was inspired by materials and themes already established in his culture and by the stimulus provided by the natural forms of the surrounding countryside. The new medium, pottery, provided the wide range of creative opportunity. Not only could the plastic material be formed into a variety of shapes but its colour could be changed by changing the method of firing and its surface could be decorated by impressing or painting patterns on it. It is scarcely surprising that for over two thousand years, from about 5500 to about 3000 B.C., the shaping and painting of pottery was one of the principal artistic activities of the villagers of Iran. Even after 3000 B.C., the approximate date by which the first truly urban civilization had arisen at Susa in south-western Iran, the production of painted pottery continued in the villages of some areas for centuries.

A study of the art of Iran requires that only pottery representing high points in the artistic production of the country be mentioned here. It is to be understood of course, that such selected pottery by no means reflects the entire state of the ceramic industry in any given village culture.

The relevance of early pottery to the general development of art has been pointed out by Sir Herbert Read, who said: 'Pottery is at once the simplest and the most difficult of all arts. It is the simplest because it is the most elementary; it is the most difficult because it is the most abstract.' And continues: 'Judge the art of a country, judge the fineness of its sensibility by its pottery; it is a sure touchstone. Pottery is pure art; it is art freed from imitative intention. Sculpture, to which it is most nearly related, had from the first an imitative intention and it is perhaps to that extent less free from the expression of the will to form than pottery; pottery is plastic art in its most abstract essence.' [2]

The case for pottery is thus presented in a somewhat exaggerated form and without due consideration of the limitations imposed on the potter by his craft and by the purpose of the objects which he fashioned. Nevertheless, Read furnishes [p. 22] arguments for a consideration of pottery beyond that of archaeological chronology and the study of the diffusion of ceramic traits from one region to another. The latter two studies, however, provide our only guide to the arrangement of early Iranian cultures in space and time, since written sources are lacking for most regions until the middle of the first millennium B.C. --except at Susa, where Mesopotamian influence caused an output of cuneiform texts from the third millennium onward.

The limited extent of systematic archaeological investigation of Iran, and in several instances its poor quality, makes an outline of ceramic and consequently stylistic development highly tentative. Nevertheless, the broad outline for the piedmontal area of the central plateau and the lowland around Susa is discernible, as well as more recently that of early settlements in Azarbaijan.

In the mountain arc surrounding the central desert, reaching approximately from Persepolis and Kerman around to Teheran and Meshed, several early sites have been investigated which show a similar type of coarse buff-brown hand-made pottery. The clay contains a great deal of chopped straw used as a tempering agent to prevent cracking while drying and firing. Surfaces were commonly given a lustrous finish by over-all burnishing. In several excavated sites, such as Tall-i Bakun near Persepolis, and the Belt and Hotu caves, near Beshar on the Caspian shore, this ware, sometimes called soft ware because it crumbles easily, has been found to precede more decorated wares painted black on a red or buff ground. At two other early sites of importance, Tepe Sialk near Kashan and Cheshm-i Ali near Teheran, similar soft ware occurs without decoration along with the later painted pottery. Closely related plain wares associated with painted pottery also occur in the earl sites of Tepe Sarab near Kermanshah, in basal Tepe Giyan near Nihavend, and at Hajji Firuz Tepe in southern Azarbaijan. This extended enumeration of sites bearing a closely related type of pottery becomes interesting when it is realized that similarity in pottery implies contact between villages. In some way the knowledge of how to make pottery from clay mixed with chaff temper spread--whether by trade or by some other means is unknown. Nor is the centre of the earliest pottery manufacture in the Near East known, for the Iranian samples are as yet insufficient to suggest that they represent the sites where pottery was invented.

More distinctive of early Iranian art than the more primitive pottery are the Chalcolithic painted wares which developed on the plateau and also in the western mountains. Their distribution coincides on the one hand with the agricultural zone around the northern end of the central piedmont and on the other with major agricultural valleys in the Zagros. In the central area they have been found at sites near Kashan, Qum, Saveh, Rayy, Tepe Hissar Damghan and Nishapur, as well as on the Caspian coast at Hotu cave. In the Zagros they occur in the north at Hajji Firuz Tepe and Dalma Tepe in the Solduz valley of Azarbaijan; near Kermanshah they are found at Tepe Siahbid, and in the plains at Pasargadae and Persepolis we may mention Tall-i Bakun and Tall-i Nokhodi, [3] a new site. The history of one of these regional developments in painted pottery is best recorded at Tepe Sialk, where the earliest phase is one of purely abstract decoration. Typical of this stage are simple geometric patterns like the lozenges painted in black on a red ground inside the deep fragmentary bowl seen in Figure 2. Hatched and cross-hatched lozenges, zigzags and undulating lines were often used in groups of four, first on the inside and later on the outside of bowls. A second ware used a buff slip as the ground for a delicate type of panel [p. 23] pattern which may have been derived from basketry. All of the geometric designs are characterized by the extent to which they appear as net patterns imposed upon the background, which thus forms an integral part of every design. Only a few patterns composed of solid black triangles occur. The finer pottery with a narrow flat base from which the walls flare out and then change to a more vertical direction. The same basic form, but with the shoulder placed higher in the bowl, was still used in the third period of Sialk about a thousand years later. Another early Sialk form which has been associated with later shapes by the excavator, R. Ghirshman, is the open bowl on a large foot. The walls are much thicker than those previously described. Vessels of both types were covered with a buff slip and decorated with a panelled pattern. Radio-carbon tests indirectly suggest a date of around 5000 B.C. for this early phase on the plateau.

We speak here of one phase because there is consistency in the pottery found in the excavated layers or levels, of which there were five in Period I at Sialk. The first yielded no walls, but the other four present four subsequent levels of construction of pisé walls, which correspond to four levels of occupation. When the pottery changes, when new forms of decoration, new colours, new shapes appear, it is assumed that a new period or phase has begun. Such changes may have been brought about by the addition of a new element in the population, or they may have been independently evolved. The latter seems unlikely when a change in pottery is accompanied by changes in the other remains such as building materials and methods. Such changes occurred between Periods I and I at Sialk when the pisé walls of Period I were replaced by the mud brick of Period II and [p. 24] the pottery of Period II appeared, which is more evolved than that of Period I. It is thin-walled, generally fired a brick red, and contains less straw than the foregoing wares. Patterns now expand. The interiors of deep bowls are divided into segments of different design or are covered by over-all designs. Often the pattern consists of geometric forms and lines so combined as to suggest organic forms. Most distinctive of this new departure are ibexes obtained by adding two short curved lines as horns to a form composed of two semicircles with the space between filled by vertical hatching. A bowl in the Metropolitan Museum, with linked ibex horns in a delicate pattern inside, is a fine example of the style of Period II which has been found at numerous sites other than Sialk--for example, at Kara Tepe in Shahriyar province west of Teheran, where an almost identical bowl was discovered. [4]

The third period at Sialk witnessed the emergence of more naturalistic animal forms than before and the combination of motifs into more complex compositions. By the middle of the period vertically and horizontally directed motifs had appeared. The vertical ones consisted of four elements: superimposed volutes, horizontal 'bird' chevrons, horned lozenges and vertical placed snakes. Horizontal motifs consisted of geometric forms like chequer-boards, but the more interesting vessels have rows of animals, felines, birds or a snake. At the end of the period horned animals are seen, first in panels, then in cursorily executed rows. Man appears fairly frequently with triangular thorax and summarily rendered head. To the same period belongs a vase in the shape of an animal; such vases are called theriomorphic.

The change in decoration corresponds to the change in the consistency of the clay and in the manner of manufacture. At the beginning of the period the clay still [p. 26] contains some straw, but by the middle the clay is very compact with virtually no straw and the surface is smooth, with a soapy feeling. Increased firing temperatures due to improved kilns changed the red colouring to buff or cream [the entire range often occurring on a single vessel] to which a slight lustre is added by light burnishing. Later the surface and paint are again left mat and the colour of the clay has a greenish cast reminiscent of the clays of south-western Iran and Mesopotamia. A most important technological revolution, which occurred during Period III, was the introduction of the potter's wheel, which permitted mass production of new and more regular shapes. The appearance of the actual 'fast' wheel may have been preceded by use of a turn-table, or tournette, as it is called in French. This was a device by which the potter could easily bring every side of the vessel within his reach by turning it on a movable base--a mat or perhaps a clay or stone disk--which in some instances may have been pivoted. The actual potter's wheel can be made to spin fast enough to impart centrifugal force to a centered lump of clay. The result is a more regular form with more sharply defined profiles. A footed beaker was one of the characteristic forms of this new technique, but older forms carried on as well. [p. 27]

In the middle of Period III at Sialk connections can be observed with the potter of other sites, for example, with that of Tepe Hissar at Damghan several hundred miles to the north-east. The main body of Hissar painted pottery [Period IB and IC] is very similar to its Sialk counterpart. Footed beakers with rows of animals and animals in panels, for example, are also found at both sites. One would like to theorize on the nature of this relationship. Why was one pottery essentially duplicated in another place? How did it become known: through trade, through migrant workers or through migration of a people? At any rate the fact that there were connections not only with Hissar but also with the pottery of Tepe Giyan--far to the west, over steep mountain passes--and with other sites indicates that the art of pottery-making was widespread and subject to influences from afar. The technique of mass production which had been created with the potter's wheel and the form of decoration, a combination of geometric and animal forms tastefully adjusted to the form of the vessel, laid the foundation for much of the stylistic tradition which subsequently characterized the pottery of Iran and which eventually found its way even to central India.

The sequence of south-western Iranian pottery cultures is known from two areas, Susiana and the Persepolis plain. Susiana, the region surrounding Susa, has prior claim to our interest because of the fact that prehistoric Iranian pottery was first discovered there and because, owing to its inherent aesthetic appeal, this pottery was the subject of a major essay in stylistic analysis made by the classical archaeologist E. Pottier. [5] Prehistoric Iran was thereby brought for the first time into the field of vision of general art history. When the painted pottery of Susa with its marvelously balanced panelled animal designs was first discovered, it was considered the earliest in the area. Recent excavations however, have shown that it came very late indeed in a development which began before 6500 BC., at a time when pottery was not yet used in the region. [6] Once painted pottery had been developed, several stages followed each other in the Susiana before the exceptional quality of the Susa I pottery had been attained [see Appendix, Chart I: Painted Pottery of Iran].

The example of Susa pottery usually shown is one of the large goblets with ibexes. Of all the painted pottery objects of the ancient Near East, the one here reproduced, which is in the Louvre, is the most successful. The design consists of three panels in each of which the principal figure is an ibex, its body formed by two connected triangles with curved sides. The curve of the back is continued in the marvelous sweep of the horns, which enclose an unidentifiable round object, marked with a central line of chevrons suggesting a plant and, at the side, cross-hatched segments. It may be only a filler design for an otherwise empty space; at the same time it may also give a shorthand indication of plant and pasture. The frame surrounding the ibex becomes slightly narrower toward the bottom and thereby emphasizes the shape of the vessel. A stress on the circular circumference of the goblet is produced by a row of running saluki-like dogs with elongated bodies and also by the dark bands which border each register of [p. 28] animals. The top is formed by birds with long thin necks; these create a very light design in contrast to the bottom, which has a thick band of dark paint that gives solidity to the base. Our short description can only enumerate the elements of the design; it cannot render adequately in words the extraordinary feeling for balance in every detail expressed by the decoration of this vessel.

In addition to the goblets, the insides of open bowls show paintings of similar character, also with a remarkable equipoise between geometric ornament and animal form. The latter is so adjusted to decorative purposes that the over-all effect is entirely harmonious. The composition of the design stresses the circular form of the bowl in various ways: by bands which partly follow the curve of the bowl but turn several times at right angles, by three or four circles arranged within the bowl, or by lines which form counter-curves to the circumference of the bowl. Less artful arrangements involve concentric circles or radial compositions.

In the Persepolis region, at Tall-i Bakun, the probably contemporary painted pottery did not reach quite the degree of sophistication of that at Susa. A pleasing object is, however, one of the many conical bowls painted on the outside with two moufflons whose tremendously enlarged horns form swelling spirals. The space between the horns is filled by cross-hatched squares and circles with an enclosed cross.

Other patterns from Tall-i Bakun and Tal-i Nokhodi show the use of negative design with the same freedom as in a painted filled design. A reversal of forms in rhythmic sequence rather than axial symmetry is also to be observed.

The decorative inventiveness of the early potters of Iran, their sense of form and balance, the assurance with which they executed their lines and shapes, transformed these vessels of simple clay into pleasing works of art. It seems likely that the pottery motifs had more than merely decorative value, but all speculation about their meaning must remain simply speculation.

The use of seals accompanied the emergence of civilization in Iran as in many other regions of western Asia. These engraved seal-stones of various shapes were impressed on lumps of clay which had been pressed over the strings wound around the neck of a vessel to secure in place the piece of woven material or other device which was employed to cover the mouth of the vessel. Other such clay sealings assured the safety of the contents of baskets or of containers fashioned of various materials. No unauthorized person could tamper with goods protected by clay sealings without risking the heavy penalties imposed on thieves in antiquity. [p. 30]

Aside from its practical function, the design engraved on the sealing surface--geometric, animal or human forms--probably had a general protective significance. Thus the seals which were usually perforated and worn as a pendant on a necklace or bracelet surely also served as amulets.

As in the potter of Iran, several groups can be distinguished among the stamp seals of that country, their style differing according to place and date of origin. [7] Only two examples are shown here, both of them closely related to groups of seals represented at Susa, although both were said to have been found in Luristan. The first is a black plaque perforated lengthwise through the middle of the object. One side of the plaque is engraved with a demon with a human body and moufflon horns. The demon has the elbows bent and both hands raised in a gesture of conjuration. Two snakes extend their triangular heads toward the demon's armpits. On either side of the demon appear several V-shaped lines of diminishing size and unknown meaning. The design is deeply and sharply gouged out from the relatively soft stone. All the shapes, such as the demon's limbs, are indicated merely by lines--except for his thorax, which is a triangular plane with horizontal lines and small vertical nicks, perhaps meant to suggest hair. Some surface design is also indicated on the bodies of the snakes, which are represented by two lines between which there is hatching in changing directions. The plaque belongs to the style of Susa A, contemporary with the beautiful pottery discussed above. In one of the painted bowls [8] occurs a human figure whose torso is similarly rendered in triangular form, although the fact that the demon on the seal has bent knees and the figure on the bowl stands upright makes the latter seem more advanced and human, whereas our demon seems to be shuffling along like an animal.

The second seal shown here is called in seal terminology a low hemispheroid. The seal is of dark red stone and has on the base the figure of a demon with the head of an ibex and feet in the form of heads of horned animals--the one recognizable horn looks like that of a bovine animal, but one cannot be sure with one hand the demon holds an ibex by the horns, with the other he raises a second ibex by one hind leg. It seems as if the demon were about to throw these animals into the air. His body is covered with short striations which probably indicate a hariy skin. The engraving is much more delicate than on the foregoing seal; the entire surface of the bodies is hollowed out of the stone, and the outlines are almost naturalistically drawn. Moreover, despite the animal-head form of the feet, the demon's posture is so human that one is inclined to think of a man in the guise of a demon rather than a creature from the fearful unreasoning world of animal demons.

It is interesting to note that in the period to which the second stamp seal belongs, Susa B, the painted pottery of Susa A appears to have been largely replaced by unpainted pottery with characteristics of the Uruk period of Mesopotamia. [9] At all times Mesopotamian art appears to have centered more on man than did the pre-Islamic art of Iran. Perhaps Mesopotamian influence, so noticeable in the pottery of Susa of that time, was also responsible for the striking differences from the moufflon demon in the conception of the ibex demon in this seal. The difference in the horns, moufflon and ibex, of the demons on our two seals may or may not indicate a basic difference in the meaning of the figures. We can only say that, of the two, the ibex demon was far more widely represented and seems to have alternated on seal impressions from Susa with a human master of animals who in one case wears ibex horns on a fez-like headgear. [10] [p. 32]

This is the first evidence for the representation of human and demonic creatures whose power to control snakes and other dangerous animals transcends that of ordinary men. Unfortunately we may never know whether we should call these powerful superhuman beings gods, shamans or--taking into consideration the occasional human form of the figure--kings with superhuman powers.

When the ibex demon was represented in Mesopotamia [11] he probably had a different and lesser significance. At least in historical times, gods were shown in Mesopotamia in human form and only demons, most of them evil, were given features of animals. [p. 33]

[ Continue ]

1. For a description of the Khuzistan region and its connections with Mesopotamia, see Adams, 'Early South-western Iran,' p. 109.

2. Ann L. Perkins in Relative Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, ed. R. W. Ehrich [Univ of Chicago Press, 1954], p. 42, pointed to the fact that northern Mesopotamia lay 'in the path of migratory movements and commerce between Syria and Iran [and farther Asia] and the lands bordering the Mediterranean.'

3. For a discussion of these 'areas of refuge,' see Frye, Heritage of Persia, pp. 7-9.

4. The ornaments of the wooden horses from the equestrian statue in the Rumbur valley, Kafiristan, are reproduced in ILN [March 30, 1963], p. 468, lower left. In the time of King Sargon [721-705 B.C.], Assyrian horses had similar ornaments worn in the same way, as shown in Barnett, Assyrian Reliefs, Pl. 43. Herzfeld, Iran, p. 141, Fig. 256, reproduced drawings of several slightly differing ornaments of this type, two of which are Assyrian, one comes from Luristan, another from the Ordos region. Examples made of shell in various shapes, which were found at Nimrud, are in the Metropolitan Museum, acc. nos. 54-117, 16-19.

5. For an archaeological survey of Seistan, see W. A. Fairservis, Archeological Studies in the Seiston Basin of Southwestern Afghanistan and Eastern Iran [Anthroplogical Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 48, New York, 1961].

6. Numerous sources of copper are known elsewhere in Iran; see R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology IX [Leyden, 1964], p. 9.

7. Textural evidence for ancient trade in metal from Elam is very limited. W. F. Leemans, Foreign Trade in the Old Babylonian Period [Studia et documenta ad iura orientis antiqui . . . VI, Leyden, 1960], gives a few references for tin, op. cit., p. 124, and for copper, op. cit., pp. 83-84. That the principal copper trade did not go through Susa in the late third and early second millennium B.C. but through Dilmun was demonstrated by A.L. Oppenheim, 'The Seafaring Merchants of Ur,' Journal of the American Oriental Society 74 [1954], pp. 6-17.

[notes 8, 9, 10, 11 are not included here . . . .] 



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