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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

The Art of The Early Urban Civilization


By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

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


The early urban civilization of Susa appears to have matured in the last centuries of the fourth millennium B.C. under the impetus of the contemporary development in Mesopotamia called the Proto-Historic period. In this period stamp seals were almost completely replaced by roller-shaped and lengthwise perforated seal-stones called cylinder seals. These were to become the most distinctive product of art in Mesopotamia and also in Susa. The administrative officers of what we may assume to have been royal or temple estates of Susa made notations on clay tablets shaped like pin-cushions. At first these notations consisted only of numerals; slightly later, and probably owing to a stimulus from the records of Mesopotamia, a pictographic script was developed whose signs were written with a stylus on the clay tablets. We call the script--which is still largely unintelligible--Proto-Elamite because it precedes the linear Elamite of the last third of the third millennium B.C., which was deciphered in 1961. [1] To authenticate the record on the tablet, the scribe rolled his cylinder seal over it while the clay was still soft and retained the impression of the design carved in reverse on the seal-stone. The tablet, which soon dried as hard as stone, became an almost indestructible document.

In Susa cylinder seals were made of marble, of variously coloured limestone, and also of a composite material which was probably faience, though it has not been analyzed. The seals were engraved with copper instruments used with an abrasive such as fine sand. Deep hollows were doubtless made with a bow-drill. Since the style and to some extent also the subject-matter of cylinder seals changed from period to period and since they are preserved in greater numbers than large works of art, the representations on cylinder seals are often our only evidence of the style and current themes of a given period. For the time of the early urban civilization of Susa, for example, cylinders and seal impressions are the principal sources for our knowledge of the art and culture of the period. They show men hunting, tending cattle, hoeing the ground, making and filling storage vessels, storing grain in silos which are not unlike Egyptian ones in outline, baking, weaving, and carrying an exalted personage or statue in a procession. A bearded warrior, doubtless the ruler, is shown transfixing with arrows a host of nude enemies who seem to have threatened a noble temple on a terrace. [2] Slightly later than this group of lively scenes, found on the tablets inscribed only with numerals, are seal designs, called Proto-Elamite, the repertory of which consists almost exclusively of animals or monsters such as griffins. These animals are arranged in rows, composed antithetically or combined in scenes. [3] Our example shows two ibexes leaping toward a pine-tree on a mountain indicated by a pattern of scales. Two equilateral crosses are in the upper field on either side of the crown of the tree; a further cross appears above the back of the ibex on the left. [4] A secondary motif shows in the upper field two antelopes leaping toward a second tree beside which flowers grow. The design is produced by deep lines; the artist was obviously most concerned with the expressive outlines of the animals. The motif of horned animals flanking a tree was preserved for several millennia until Sasanian times in Iran and also became known to other peoples of the Near East in whose art it is frequently found. We have no means of discovering the precise meaning of the motif, but the relation of tree and animal probably expressed certain ideas about the vital forces of nature. [p. 34]

The most interesting among the Proto-Elamite cylinders show animal demons. These monstrous forms with a combination of man and animal recall the demons of the stamp seals and may have been descended from them. In addition to these earlier ibex and moufflon demons, however, a lion and a bull demon were also rendered in Proto-Elamite seals.

Some indication of the significance of the lion demon may be given by a seal impression in which two such creatures are shown walking between mountains represented by heaps of small cones. The gigantic size of the lion demons in relation to the mountains is too striking to be without meaning, although proportions are usually not important in ancient Near Eastern renderings of landscapes. Here, however, one cannot escape the conclusion that the leonine demons were thought to have great power over the mountainous country through which they stride in the seal design.

To judge by another seal impression a bull demon was as powerful as the lion demon, for in this seal design both creatures are shown as if in equipoise: the lion seems to have two bulls in his power, and conversely the bull controls two lions.

A lion demon sculptured in the round is also preserved from this period. [5] Although the figure is little more than eight centimeters high, it conveys an impression of monumental power. The stone, probably magnesite, has the colour of ivory and a smooth, almost luminous surface. The figure is here called a lioness because of the obviously feminine forms of the lower body, but the sex of the figure is not defined and it is possible that a sexless creature was intended. The figure stands before us in an upright human posture, her paws held like fists below her breasts in a gesture characteristic of human figures of the same period in Mesopotamia. [6] From the heavy neck emerges the majestic leonine head, which is turned sideways to rest on the left shoulder. Only a shallow ridge separates the neck from the back and shoulders so that there is the least possible interruption of the nearly triangular outline formed by head and thorax. The lower part of the body is turned at right angles from the thorax so that the legs [p. 35] and abdomen face in the same direction as the head. The accentuated abdomen balances the strong backward curve of the haunches. The legs are cut off above the knee, and the stumps are smoothed off. One stump bears a dowel hole suggesting that the lower legs were made separately, perhaps of a different material. Two holes were drilled in the back of the neck and four at the base of the spine. The four holes were surely intended to tie on the tail, and the pendent bands beside it, seen on the seal impression. The holes on the neck, at the back of the head, cannot be so easily explained. Perhaps the figure had occasionally to serve as a male lion and at such times received a mane, which was tied on with a thin cord slipped through the holes. These were certainly not intended to receive a support for some object which the lioness may have carried, as has been suggested without consideration of the position and the nature of the holes. [7]

The modelling of the figure is superb. The anatomical knowledge displayed, in the indication of the upper leg muscles, for example, is truly surprising. However, such details are stressed no more than is compatible with retaining the overall effect of the form. Thus the paws are treated rather summarily, so as not to weaken the powerful triangle of the thorax.

Only the head is accorded greater realism, a multitude of planes producing various changes from light to shade. The empty sockets of the eyes, in which the graded shadows now add a touch of mysterious life, were once filled with eyeballs of stone or shell and perhaps blue lapis-lazuli pupils. The detailed modelling of the small head effectively accentuates the impact of the less differentiated massive thorax. However, the unity of the form is preserved by the rhythm of the planes, which repeat the pattern of the head in simplified and larger manner throughout the body.

Sculptural means such as those employed for this little lioness might equally well have been used for the creation of a larger statue. This is undoubtedly the reason for the monumental quality of this figure, a quality shared by a number of small works of the proto-Historic period in Mesopotamia.

At the end of this period in Mesopotamia and in Susa, where it is called Susa C., there occurred a striking change in style. In Susa D and in the contemporary early Dynastic period of Mesopotamia the style which emerged in cylinder seals and also in a steatite vase, found at Khafaje but perhaps made in Iran, is flat and linear, almost as if there had been a return to the manner of the early Iranian stamp seals. The figures were hollowed out of the stone as flat planes and varied only by linear patterns. On one side of the vessel a bull which lies on his back is being devoured by a lion, while a falcon or hawk has swooped down to profit from the kill. The design of the animals is extraordinarily expressive: [p. 37] the tense, greedy lion, the lifeless mass of the bull, and the two little bears on either side of a date-palm which lick their mouths after having eaten the sweet fruit. The principal figures of the vase, however, seem to be human or divine. One of them kneels on the back of one of two addorsed bulls, holding streams of water with each hand. Another such figure stands between two lions, holding two snakes. Each figure appears to be characterized as a deity or her representative by a large rosette or star over the left shoulder. Plants which sprout from the watercourses and fill the field suggest the fertility of life-giving water. [8] Control of snakes and lions hostile to man may be indicated by the second motif. The third may show beasts, unrestrained by man or god, destroying a defenseless bull. Such interpretations, stimulated by a study of the vase, unfortunately cannot be proved. We may point, however, to the fact that the equipoise of the figure with bulls and what may be the same figure with lions seen on this vase recalls the Proto-Elamite cylinder seal with an apparent balance of power between lion and bull.

The imprint of a cylinder seal from Susa, from a later stage of the Early Dynastic period, shows long-haired youths who are perhaps related to the figures on the steatite vase. They are in attendance on a deity sitting or kneeling on a lion. The date of the cylinder seal is indicated by the frieze of fighting heroes and animals in the lower register. To judge by Mesopotamian examples, it cannot have been carved much before 2500 B.C. The imprint shows an interesting combination of Mesopotamian stylistic conventions with concepts which appear to have been at home in Susa and probably also in other parts of Iran.

The painted pottery of Susa D has fewer points of contact with Mesopotamian pottery than the cylinder seals have. Only the non-fast polychrome decoration is comparable to the scarlet ware with fugitive red paint used at the beginning of the First Early Dynastic period in the Diyala region. The motifs, of Plate 7, however--a large star, a curiously insecurely positioned goat with a small human figure above--have no parallels in Mesopotamian art. The powerfully stylized eagle with spread wings on the back of this vessel [9] is not unlike contemporary designs from Tepe Giyan near Nihavend; the star pattern also points to a connection with the pottery designs of that site in northern Luristan. [p. 38]


[ Continue ]

1. For the decipherment of some of the texts with linear Elamite script, see W. Hinz, 'Zur Entzifferung der elamischen Strichschrift,' Iranica Antiqua II/1 [1962], pp. 1-21.

2. For the lively scenes on seal impressons from Susa, see Amiet, Glyptique, Pls. 14-17 and Pl. 46, Fig. 659; for the observation that the silos resemble those of Egypt, see p. 104, remarks about Pl. 16, Figs. 267-269; Pl. 36, Fig. 555; Pl. 37, Figs. 567, 568.

3. For the impressions and extant seals assigned by Amiet to the 'Proto-Elamite' style, see op . cit. [in note III/2], Pls. 32-38 bis, to Fig. I.

4. Unfortunately the impression of the seal published in Delaporte, Louvre I, Pl. 24:8 [S. 254], was not fully reproduced on the present plate, Plate 5, owing to erroneous cutting on the part of the engraver.

5. For a discussion of this leonine demon, see E. Porada, 'A Leonine Figure of the Protoliterate Period of Mesopotamia,' Journal of the American Oriental Society 70 [1950], pp. 223-226.

6. A posture with both fists held below the breast is seen in the male figure from Uruk published by E. Strommenger, FünfJahrtausende Mesopotamien [Munich, 1962], Pl. 33.

7. The suggestion was made by Amiet, op. cit. [in note III/2], p. 109.

8. This interpretation agrees in part with the one given by Frankfort in Art and Architecture, p. 19.

9. For publication of the vase and a drawing of the entire representation, see Revue d'Assyriologie XXXIV [1937], p. 151.







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