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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

The Art of the Akkad and Post-Akkad Periods in Western Iran; Contemporary Art Works of North-Eastern Iran


 

By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

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

 

The powerful Akkad dynasty, which put an end to the Sumerian city-states of Mesopotamia about 1270 B.C., extended its rule over western Iran also, especially over the south-west: Elam, with its capital city of Susa. Susa may have been a trading centre for some of the raw materials from Iran needed in Mesopotamia: metals, stone and timber. Military campaigns by the Akkadians and later rulers of Mesopotamia were probably necessary to assure the continuous flow of these materials but also [and this was more important] to hold in check the predatory Elamite highlanders, who were always eager to raid the Mesopotamian towns which had grown rich through industry and trade. Elam seems to have had some sort of a federation of such highlanders, with their own, probably half-nomadic living pattern, and the townspeople of Susa and other centres who shared the urban way of life developed in Mesopotamia. [1]

No large monuments are known in Iran from the time of the Akkad dynasty, but a relief of King Naramsin [2291-2255 B.C.] near Darband-i Gawr in southern Kurdistan in Iraq may have influenced somewhat later reliefs at Sar-i Pul, [2] not far from Kermanshah in the Kurdish mountains on the Iranian side of the frontier. In one of these reliefs King Anubanini of the Lullubi tribes--which Akkadian texts locate north of the Elamites--represented himself triumphing over his enemies with the help of the goddess Inanna. Inanna extends to the [p. 40] king a ring, a symbol of divine authority in Mesopotamian iconography. The important role of the goddess Inanna in this relief corresponds to the significant position of the goddess Pinikir in the Elamite pantheon. In the treaty which Naramsin concluded with a king of Awan--a country probably also located north of Elam, but considerably further south than the Lullubi tribes--the invocation of the chief goddess Pinikir precedes the enumeration of the other thirty-five gods of the Elamite pantheon called as witnesses. The text of the clay tablet begins: 'Hearken goddess Pinikir . . . and you good gods of heaven.' [3] The predominance of a female deity declined later in the official religion of Elam, but the presence of numerous female figurines in all levels of the excavations at Susa until the middle of the first millennium B.C. documents her continued importance in popular esteem. A resurgence of veneration for a female goddess at the official level may be observed again in the ascendancy of the Persian Anahita from the later Achaemenid to the Sasanian period. At that time the relief of Anubanini may have been one of the numerous sources of inspiration for the rock-cut reliefs showing the investitute of Sasanian rulers by their divine patrons. The head-dress of the leader of the shackled enemies of Anubanini is very interesting. He wears a feather crown such as that found in a few hammered bronzes of Luristan belonging to the early first millennium B.C. [4]

In Susa the works of art dating from the Akkad period include few objects other than cylinder seals. These resemble Mesopotamian examples so closely that they can scarcely be differentiated. A cylinder seal of unknown origin in the collection of Mossène Foroughi, which can be dated in the Akkad period, shows, however, such unusual style and subject-matter, probably distinctly Iranian, that it will be described in detail. [5] The main figure of the scene seems to be a seated female with snakes issuing from her shoulders and a bull's head above her head. Presumably this is a deity. Before her kneels a servant with two triangular objects, perhaps small vessels, at her sides. Above the goddess appears an eagle [p. 41] over one of whose wings is a human head, perhaps a rendering of Etana [discussed below]. The eagle faces a snake, below which is a musical instrument. Two undulating lines, perhaps serpents whose heads are not indicated, divide off a curious combination of designs: the hind parts of a bull or ox, cut off and upside-down, appear above a female torso over a stool with bull's feet. Below the stool appear the foreparts of the bull or ox. At the upper right of this extraordinary combination of motifs squats a female figure, resembling the goddess enthroned in another part of the seal. The second figure, however, merely seems to hold a snake in her hand, instead of having the reptiles emerge from her shoulders. Below this female figure is a stool marked by vertical and diagonal lines. Two small birds are seen on the ground beside the motif enclosed by undulating lines. A very tenuous interpretation of the scene may be suggested on the basis of the Mesopotamian myth of the shepherd king Etana who flew to heaven on the back of an eagle to obtain the plant of birth for his wife. Numerous Akkadian cylinder seals showing a man on the back of an eagle have been interpreted as illustrating the flight of Etana. In our cylinder the eagle with a human head appearing over its wing may render this subject in an abbreviated manner. The juxtaposition of the eagle with a serpent may refer to the widespread theme of the enmity between eagle and serpent. [6] In the preamble of the Etana myth the eagle devours the young of the snake, and the snake avenges itself on the advice of the sun god Shamash by hiding in the carcass of an ox and attacking the eagle when he crawls into the carcass to feed from it. One may wonder whether the latter incident is rendered in the motif of the female torso between the two halves of a bull or ox on our cylinder seal. While the serpent of the Mesopotamian myth is male, the Iranian version could have featured a female serpent in view of the early prominence of female deities mentioned above. Pictorial support for the existence of a major deity of fertility associated with snakes and streams of water is given by the later Proto-Historic or Early Dynastic steatite vase from Khafaje. In a Mesopotamian myth the motif of such a snake deity of Iranian origin could have been garbled to suit the taste of the Mesopotamian story-teller. The original dignified conception of such a deity in Iran at the time of the Akkad dynasty, however, may be reflected in the rendering of the enthroned goddess on our cylinder seal.

The empire of Akkad came to an end about 2230 B.C. largely as a result of the pressures of groups of tribes on the borders of the empire. The barbarous Guti who swept into the plain from the Zagros mountains brought about the final collapse of the dynasty. At the same time Susa seems to have experienced an invasion of similarly destructive and probably related tribes.

A curiously simplified and repetitious group of cylinder seal designs may be associated with these Guti. [7] The cylinders of this type found at Susa were made of faience and show a principal figure which has one or more pairs of horns rising like excrescences from the head. The figure usually grasps a two-headed horned animal while menacing a second horned animal. The renderings may be derived from Mesopotamian examples of cylinder seals engraved with a frieze of struggling heroes, demons and animals. Such groups of objects, in which Mesopotamian tradition seems to have lingered, may have served to transmit to later Iranian craftsmen garbled versions of ancient Mesopotamian motifs. In this way some of the iconography of the later Luristan bronzes which favoured a horned figure between animals might find an explanation. At the same time it is possible that the horned figure was more than an appealing formal motif for the [p. 42] inhabitants of the mountains of Luristan, and that the concept of a master of animals, a demon with animal horns, first found on the prehistoric stamp seals of the region, was preserved in this area.

The distribution of cylinder seals marks the extent of Mesopotamian and Elamite influence in Iran. Its absence in the north-east, at Tureng Tepe and Tepe Hissar, is shown by the fact that only very few cylinders were found at Tepe Hissar and none at Tureng Tepe. The earlier excavation at that site--for it is at present being excavated anew [8]--yielded several clay statuettes, the most arresting of which, dark grey in colour, is here reproduced in a drawing. It is interesting to compare this idol with the Venus from Tepe Sarab, which was made several thousand years before. In both idols the female characteristics are greatly stressed; in the example form Tureng Tepe, however, the proportions are more natural. Furthermore, there is a striking contrast between the earlier figure, which sits heavily on the ground--as if it were tied to the earth --and the idol from Tureng Tepe, which stands upright before the viewer with arms spread like wings so that the figure seems light and dignified despite its ample proportions. This effect, which is further enhanced by a diadem and many necklaces, suggests that the little figurine may represent a goddess. The fact that the figure was found in a burial, lying against the arm of the skeleton, would not militate against such an interpretation. [9]

The general context in which the figurine was found and its grey colour link it with levels of Hissar which were given the classification Hissar III B-C and which should be dated to the end of the third millennium and the earlier part of the second millennium B.C. [10] These levels at Hissar, so undramatically classified, contain some of the great problems of Iranian archaeology and history: the origin of the metal wealth, metal technology and metal tools of the community at Tepe Hissar and the origin of its grey, often patterned, burnished pottery. Further problems concern the connection between the early ware of Hissar, Tureng Tepe and other sites in this eastern region of Iran and the later grey ware cultures of western Iran. The most important and the most difficult problem connected with this pottery, however, concerns the identity of its makers. The most recent theory put forward considers the possibility that the grey ware was the favoured pottery of the Indo-Europeans in Iran and that its distribution marked their advance in that country. [11] Of the rich metal finds from Hissar III we reproduce [p. 43] here only a drawing of a moufflon head, one of five, made of gold foil and intended to be sewn on to some sort of textile. These precious objects were part of a hoard buried at the end of Hissar III, probably shortly before the site was attacked and destroyed by fire. [12]

The powerful sweep of the horns, the eyes staring out of the head, suggest a more than decorative significance for this object. One would like to know whether there was any connection between the frequent representations of moufflon and ibex on the one hand and of female figurines on the other.

Tentatively we may suggest here that attention to be focused on some rites and concepts which Karl Jettmar was able to observe in villages of Dardistan, situated in north-western India, where 'the three most eminent mountain chains of Asia meet--the Hindukush, Himalaya and Karakoram. Most of this area is inhabited by Indo-Aryan or Iranian peoples'. [13] In the remote valleys of this region ancient religious traditions maintained themselves without interference by the Muhammadan zealots who had destroyed such traditions in neighbouring Kafiristan. Only the wood carvings of Kafiristan still manifest today a similarly tenacious retention of ancient traditions [see p. 18]. The most interesting tradition of Dardistan concerns the cult of a goddess Murkum who was worshipped by all the women of the Haramosh valley. 'She helped in delivery and protected mother and child; yet she was also the chief owner of all ibexes and wild goats denoted by the collective term of mayaro. Therefore she was venerated by hunters, too, who brought her horns'. [14] Jettmar describes a sanctuary of Murkum, which was still in use, as lying almost three thousand metres above sea-level just in front of the Haramosh; this was 'no accident as the mountain was considered the proper home of the Murkum. On the steep slope there is an altar built of boulders dominated by a cliff as big as a house with a juniper tree growing beside it. Next to it is a spring. Below the altar crude benches of stone were erected for the annual meeting of the women. Nut-trees grow between them. Even they are considered holy and no branches were ever broken off.' In the rites performed at the annual meeting of the women at the sanctuary, the goddess was to send the sacrifice, a she-ibex. A male priest is said to have participated in the ceremony by performing a dance and by killing the ibex and dividing it up. The ministry of this priest 'is now abolished but women anxious about the welfare of their families still come to the altar table and put leaves of juniper between the boulders.'

Similar concepts concerning a deity, 'owner-goddess of the animals', also prevailed in some districts of the Caucasus. There, as in the Haramosh valley, a hunter can capture his prey only with her consent. Sometimes the goddess appears in the shape of a "pure" animal. The precise idea that a slaughtered animal may be revived from its bones occurs in both areas. Even the detail that a missing bone can be replaced by a rod is identical. Here, as there, the belief is connected with wild goats and this must be a very old affinity, because Thor, the Germanic god, plays the same trick on his bucks.

'Today there is a vast empty distance between the two centres, the Caucasus and the Hindukush/Karakoram, but once perhaps similar beliefs existed on the Iranian plateau and were destroyed in the course of the violent history of this area.' The possibility here suggested of using the complex of ideas discovered in Dardistan and known from the Caucasus for the interpretation of early works of art from Iran is very tempting but must unfortunately remain a hypothesis without documentary proof. [p. 44]

 

[ Continue ]


NOTES:
1. For comments on the 'link between the plain and the mountains' which was 'one of the fundamental factors of Elamite history,' see W. Hinz, 'Persia, c. 2400-1800 B.C.,' CAH I/XXIII [1963], p. 4. E. Reiner and M. J. Stève are very doubtful of the validity of some of Hinz' historical interpretations.

2. A good photograph of Naramsin's relief from Darband-i Gawr is found in Von der Osten, Welt der Perser, Pl. 9. Details of the relief are reproduced in the article by E. Strommenger, 'Das Felsrelief von Darband-i-Gaur' Baghdader Mitteilungen 3 [1963], Pls. 15-18. For the reliefs of Sar-i Pul, see N. C. Debevoise, 'The Rock Reliefs of Ancient Iran,' JNES I [1942], pp. 80-82.

3. See Hinz, op. cit. [in note IV [1], p. 21 for the quotation from the Khita treaty with the appeal to the goddess Pinikir, and pp. 21-32 for a summary of religion in ancient Elam.

4. For a disk-shaped bronze pin-head of Luristan type with a figure wearing a feather crown, see A. U. Pope, Masterpieces of Persian Art [New York, 1945], p. 32 [Pl. 16], lower right.

5. For an article on this cylinder seal, see E. Porada in Compte rendu de l'onzième rencontre assyriologique internationale [Leyden, 1964], pp. 88-93.

6. The theme of eagle and serpent was treated by R. Wittkower, 'Eagle and Serpent; a Study in the Migratin of Symbols,' Journal of the Warburg Institute II [1938-1939], pp. 293-325.

7. This attribution may be correct although seals of this type were discovered at Tell Asmar in the Diyala valley of eastern Mesopotamia in levels which preceded the end of the Akkad period; see H. Frankfort, Stratified Cylinder Seals from the Diyala Region [OIP LXXII, 1955], Pl. 49, No. 514; Pl. 53, Nos. 558, 567; Pl. 56, Nos. 596, 597; Pl. 60, No. 629; Pl. 69, No. 748.

8. The earlier excavations at Tureng Tepe were carried out and published by F. R. Wulsin, 'Excavations at Tureng Tepe near Asterabad,' Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology, Supplement 2/1 [New York, 1932]. For the excavations beng carried on at present, see J. Deshayes, 'Rapport préliminaire sur les deux premières campagnes de fouille à Tureng Tepe,' Syria XL [1963], pp. 85-99.

9. For the discovery of the grey figurine from Tureng Tepe, see Wulsin, op. cit. [in note IV/8], p. 10; the head of a similar statuette was reproduced by him, op. cit., Pl. XVII, Fig. 2.

10. Deshayes, op. cit. [in note IV/8], p. 99, would like to date these levels at Tureng Tepe in the third millenium B.C. V.E. Crawford, however, reported that a carbon-14 sample of a Hissar III B level from Yarim Tepe yielded a date between 2200 and 1900 B.C.; see Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art [April 1963], p. 271.

11. For the possible association of the grey ware with the Indo-European Iranians, see Cuyler Young, Proto-Historic Western Iran, especially pp. 231-232.

12. For the hoard on the Treasure Hill where these ornaments were found, see E. R. Schmidt, Excavations at Tepe Hissar Damghan [The University Museum, Philadelphia, 1937], pp. 171-173 and 189.

13. See K. Jettmar, 'Ethnological Research in Dardistan 1958; Preliminary Report,' Proceedings of the American Philosohical Society 105 [February 1961], p. 79.

14. See Jettmar, op. cit. in note IV/13, pp. 88-91 for this and the following quotations. In note 58 he pointed out that at some places the urial, the wild sheep, is also included in the 'mayaro'.

 

 

 

 

 

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