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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

Finds of The Late 2nd & Early 1st Millennium BCE at Sialk


 

By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

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

 

Finds of The Late Second and Early First Millennium B.C. at Sialk Near Kashan
Some time after the middle of the second millennium B.C. the old site of Tepe Sialk was settled by what seems to have been a new group of people. As at Marlik, the dead were buried in a cemetery, not in their houses as had been customary in the prehistoric levels at the site. Pottery, weapons, and jewelry of bronze were put in the graves, but very little precious metal. Perhaps the group buried at Sialk was less affluent than the nobles interred at Marlik; perhaps these graves at Sialk were made somewhat earlier, when less ostentation was practiced in every respect.

Two periods were distinguished in the late levels at Sialk: Periods A and B, which were also given the Roman numbers V and VI in the sequence of levels that begins with the first prehistoric settlement of Level I at Sialk. At a later time the constructions of Level V were virtually destroyed to make way for a citadel at the highest point of the settlement. [1] Therefore only graves remain of the earlier period, and these contain little more than a fine pottery of grey-black colour, more rarely red, and in a very few cases painted. The shapes are restrained; the variety of decorative techniques shows that much effort was expended on making this pottery as unobtrusively pleasing as it appears to us.

The cemetery of Level VI, on the other hand, yielded the striking jars with a long spout which have become a familiar feature in most exhibits of Western Asiatic art. These jars were made in grey or red monochrome pottery, or they were of brown or buff clay and painted with a red colour which varied from pink to purple. The spouts frequently imitate by their shape and by the design painted upon them the neck and beak of the comb of a bird. Occasionally the head of an animal appears at the back of the spout [see the example in Chart II, lower left].

The geometric motifs employed in the decoration of this pottery are combined in such a way as to suggest some meaning. The pointed triangles, for example, are often arranged in a circle or semicircle and suggest rays, while small squares or lozenges seem to form large carpet-like strips or squares. So arranged, these apparently 'meaningful' geometric motifs differ from those of similar form used purely decoratively on the rare examples of painted pottery from the cemetery of Level V. Most characteristic of the pottery of Level VI, however, are the designs of animals, of which, in turn, the example with a bull in Chart II is the most distinctive. There the animal is rendered with lowered head and horn in the posture of attack, and so distinguished from the usual rendering of walking animals which carry their horned heads proudly upright. The posture of the heads and the decoratively curved necks seem to be derived from the elegant decorative bulls of the Marlik beaker with concave sides. Instead of the delicately stepping bulls of that beaker, however, which still maintain a tenuous relation with the ground-line, the ground-line is here disregarded as a base for the figure, [p. 105] since only the forefeet are set down upon it, while the hind legs float in the air. The resulting pose is awkward and insecure. A similarly uncertain pose caused by the same disregard for a common ground-line for all four feet of the animal can be observed in the jar in Plate 26.

Thus it seems that the insecure pose, originally derived from the very slight relation to the ground-line of the thin-limbed delicate creatures in the abstract decorative Marlik style, became a criterion of the more vigorous style of the early first millennium B.C. In other words the provincial painters of Sialk misinterpreted the delicate renderings of the earlier style--which may have already reached them in later coarsened and adulterated renderings [2] --to mean that animals could be put in a field in various poses without having a solid ground-line on which to stand.

On the same vessel in Plate 26 a flacon is painted below the handle. The bird's body is shown as if viewed from below, a type of rendering also found on the gold bowl from Hasanlu, on a handle attachment in the form of a bird from the same site, and also in the Old Elamite falcon from Susa. These examples show that this rendering of the bird of prey is a criterion of style which prevailed for many centuries in many regions of Iran.

Another link with other regions of Iran is provided by the small copper figurines of women in the same posture and with the same perforated ear-lobes as the large female figures from the Marlik tomb. The smaller size of the figures from Sialk may again be due to the lesser wealth of the people buried there. But it may also exemplify a development toward smaller figures for tombs in the centuries following the Marlik burials. [3]

These are all tentative suggestions, however, which remain to be substantiated by further discoveries. [p. 106]


NOTES:
1. In Proto-Historic Western Iran, pp. 72-76, Cuyler Young throws reasonable doubt on the origin of the 'grand massif' in period VI as postulated by Ghirshman, and makes it appear possible that the 'massif' was a Sasanian or Early Islamic construction. This would greatly modify Ghirshman's reconstruction of the first settlement of Indo-Europeans at Sialk [Iran, pp. 83 ff].

2. I have seen iron finger-rings in which the inspiration from the Marlik style of metal vessels was clearly recognizable but which showed considerable coarsening of that style. There may have been metal vessels, not yet known, which corresponded to the style of these finger-rings and could have in turn inspired the potters of Sialk.

3. Perhaps the numerous small bronze figurines from the 'Dailaman region' published by E. L. B. Terrace, 'Some Recent Finds from Northwest Persia,' Syria XXXIX [1962], pp. 212-224, belong to a later phase of the South Caspian culture, contemporary with Sialk B, as suggested by Terrace [Ibid., pp. 214-215]. He would, however, include the entire 'culture' in this late period, which is unaccaptable on the evidence presentrd in Chapter VII.

 

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